As Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress last week, it became clear that Facebook’s decision to permit politicians to lie with impunity is well on its way to hitting its logical absurd extremes. Zuckerberg needs to reverse course, either by implementing common sense limits on the lies politicians can pay to spread, or by banning political advertising through the 2020 election while the company works to get this right.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren started unmasking the indefensibility of the politician-can-lie-at-will ad policy when she ran an ad on Facebook claiming—falsely—that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump. (In the ad, she made clear the claim wasn’t true.)
A few days later, in the wake of a Zuckerberg speech invoking Martin Luther King Jr. to defend Facebook’s position, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got Zuckerberg to concede that Facebook would likely allow her to run an ad claiming her Republican opponent supports the Green New Deal as a tactic to suppress Republican turnout. And then someone actually did it.
The third strike came a few days later when an activist donned a candidate costume, registering to run for California governor in an election that won’t be held until 2022. Under Facebook’s policy, Adriel Hampton should now be free to claim anything he wants about anyone he wants in any ad he pays Facebook to run. Except Facebook has determined Hampton is a candidate solely to get around its policy, so it will not allow him to lie in ads. Trolling season is only getting started.
Facebook’s policy is so poorly considered that even Facebook’s employee base is rising up against the CEO. On Monday, 250 employees signed an open letter imploring the company to change its policy and implement some common-sense reforms before “politicians weaponize” the platform. The first and clearest change they propose is that Facebook hold ads from politicians to the same standard as all other advertisers. The second is that the company distinguish political ads from content with stronger visual cues and contextualization—in other words, simple design changes.
As the employees wrote, “Misinformation shared by political advertisers has an outsized detrimental impact on our community. We should not accept money for political ads without applying the standards that our other ads have to follow.”
Some Facebook supporters have argued it is too hard to say what is true and what is false. That Facebook’s advertising rules should allow politicians to promote whatever they want. Setting aside the chilling implications of the death of truth, it must be made clear that Facebook does make such judgments in every other context with every other advertiser.
A startup cannot claim the miracle cream it is selling cures Ebola.
A nonprofit raising money cannot claim donations will guarantee children will become NBA All-Stars, or that they will be freed of debt for life.
MSNBC cannot claim its new host, Sean Hannity, will be appearing nightly in the 10 o’clock hour.
Even in the political context, Facebook makes these judgments. Just a few days ago, Facebook’s political action committee followed AOC’s lead and ran an ad claiming Sen. Lindsey Graham supports the Green New Deal. Because the ad came from a PAC, not a political candidate, Facebook took it down.
Finally, if a political candidate runs an ad claiming Election Day is moved to Thursday, Facebook will reject the ad because it constitutes voter suppression. Clearly, voter suppression takes many forms—including lying about policy positions, integrity, and personal pasts—but Facebook will only reject the lie when it meets the narrowest imaginable definition.
Very little of this is easy. Every policy decision will have consequences and unpredictable behaviors attached to it. If a company restricts one form of advertising, content will find its way through another channel. But that should never be an excuse to throw out the truth. Advertising and consumer protection bureaus have long held norms against publishing unsubstantiated claims.
So, what is the solution? Should Facebook label political ads differently? What degree of misrepresentation might require rejecting an ad? Who should be responsible for fact-checking, and how should candidates appeal if they believe they have been wrongly judged? Does it make sense to impose a blackout period on political ads in the days before an election? Would it help to put a cap on the amount any candidate or PAC could spend during an election cycle? Should geotargeting to the most susceptible counties be judged too dangerous a tool? Even if Facebook does change its policies, will we be trending in the exact same way with misinformation as we did in 2016?
Every one of these questions is open to debate. They all require serious consideration.
You know what the easy part is, though? Rejecting paid lies. Policy changes often have consequences that aren’t properly thought through. When leaders realize they are wrong, they go back to the drawing board.
Facebook, the stakes could not be higher. Internal uprisings are just the beginning. Follow your employees’ lead and hold political candidates to the same standard as every other advertiser. Tell them they cannot pay you to spread lies to hyper-targeted audiences. If Mark Zuckerberg can’t bring his company to do that, he should get out of the political ad game entirely.