Inside Facebook’s Political Ad Mess

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S1: Hi I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And if you’re wondering why you’re hearing my voice and not Mary Harris’s. It’s because we’re bringing you a new show. It’s called What Next. TBD and it’s part of the what next family focused on tech power and the future. So you’ll hear me every Friday morning in your what next feed and you’ll still get regular what next Monday through Thursday. Plus those great impeachment roundup shows are no one Friday afternoons. Hope you like it. On Wednesday of this week. Mark Zuckerberg went up to Capitol Hill.

S2: Thank you Chairwoman waters Ranking Member McHenry and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

S1: In theory he was there to testify about Facebook cryptocurrency Libra. In practice he was there to be a pinata for members of Congress.

S3: Mr. ZUCKERBERG I want to get through a number of questions diverse asset management fair housing issues diversity and inclusion in privacy and security in particular lawmakers seem to want to focus on Facebook policy of not fact checking political ads.

S4: You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. So I just want to know how far I can push this.

S2: I mean you plan on doing no fact checking on political ads chairwoman ah our policy is that we do not fact check politician’s speech and Zuckerberg is last time in front of Congress was in the spring of 2018 yell Eizenstat remembers that day perfectly the last time he testified was the day they made the job offer to me.

S5: In fact they actually call me with the final offer one minute after his testimony ended that day.

S1: Yells background is fascinating. She’s been a CIA officer advised Vice President Biden on national security done corporate responsibility for big companies and in 2018. At that point in her life she was looking for the next thing and Facebook came calling.

S6: I watched the entire hearing I watched how many times he talked about elections in particular around the world as a top priority. They called me and gave me the exact title that spoke to the core of my priorities and who I am.

S1: Offered me this shiny title of Head of Global elections integrity operations Yale is the kind of person who talks about civil discourse and preserving democracy in regular conversation. She’s an idealist but she says she wasn’t naive about the challenges.

S6: I didn’t have rose colored glasses thinking I was going to go change the company. I’m old enough and have worked in the world enough to know that that was not what I thought but I was not an easy easy interviewer like I was very clear. Don’t hire me if you don’t mean it. I’m very excited to help this company think through these very challenging questions of what role are we playing in global politics and global democracy.

S7: And so I went in thinking if what they offered me is true which was to build and head this new team to hire a team and to really help think through what is the best way for us to ensure that we are not harming democracy and elections around the world then how could I say no. If you can hear in her voice that it didn’t work out the way she wanted.

S8: Well that’s true today on the show.

S9: Why the fight over political ads on Facebook is really a battle about something much bigger. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and this is what next TBD a show about technology power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S1: Before you went to work for Facebook she’d been deep in the national security world. A lot of it overseas. But in 2015 she started rethinking her focus.

S5: It started occurring to me that a bigger threat in my mind to all the things I cared about whether it be democracy civil discourse our national security was no longer coming from this thing abroad that I was working on and I started thinking it was the breakdown of civil discourse here at home. So I started digging in and started looking at why that was happening and I’m not saying social media is the only reason it was happening but did start exploring then started speaking about it and and was asked once on a podcast to I think Mark Zuckerberg is to blame and I said something along lines of I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg set out to destroy democracy. And he gave his long answer like I don’t think this is anything intentional. But I do question who he has in his decision making table. And I suspect it’s not people with my backgrounds.

S10: Your background having been a CIA officer.

S5: Yes. Having been a CIA officer or having been a diplomat overseas having worked on the ground with real people affected by policies decisions conflicts over the last few weeks.

S1: This question of Facebook s role in public discourse is back in the headlines. Specifically how Facebook treats political advertising.

S11: Good afternoon. Thank you very much for allowing me to spend 10 minutes or so with you this afternoon about Facebook.

S1: That’s Nick Clegg Facebook exact and former British politician and we’re playing this tape because he kicked off this advertising controversy again when he spoke at the Atlantic festival recently.

S12: And that’s why I want to be really clear with you today. We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact checkers and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.

S1: Of course that got major pushback most notably from Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. And last week Mark Zuckerberg defended the policy in a speech he gave at Georgetown couching it as part of Facebook a larger commitment to free speech.

S5: One of the questions they asked me during my interview which I actually heard Mark Zuckerberg talk about during his speech the other day they asked me Do you think we should ban political advertising altogether.

S13: You know given the sensitivity around political ads I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether.

S14: From a business perspective the controversy certainly is not worth a very small part of our business that they make up.

S15: And I did say you know what. I think it would probably be the easiest thing to do because I assume you’re not actually making as much money from political advertising as you are from industries and other stuff.

S6: However no I don’t think you guys should ban political advertising because I look at this globally and if you ban political advertising you’re tilting the scales towards the incumbents who already have access to media access to information especially in countries that have more dictatorial regimes. And you would be squashing the voice of the smaller parties and the little person. So I do actually fundamentally believe that and I heard Mark Zuckerberg say that the other day and I agree with him.

S14: Political ads can be an important part of voice especially for local candidates an up and coming challengers and advocacy groups and the media might not otherwise cover so that way they can get their voice into the debate.

S5: I do fundamentally believe that but we cannot deny that that platform has been abused and that they let it happen.

S6: So I wanted to look at the political discourse all together over the platform from the organic side to the to the advertising side and understand what is actually the underlying drivers here.

S10: Do you remember your first day first week.

S6: Oh yeah. First day’s orientation.

S5: So first day is you know like any place. Drink the company kool aid. Very cheerleading very exciting. And my second day my first meeting which was a zoo meeting because I was in Menlo Park and my boss was not very first meeting with my new boss. She let me know that I have to change her title. Your title is now going to be manager. I’ll just say one of the things that we hear them tout a lot including right now is how many people they’ve hired with backgrounds like mine for example to help them fix these problems. And they have they’ve hired some amazing people I had some amazing colleagues there. But hiring us and empowering us are two different things.

S16: And from day one we actually day two sorry it was made crystal clear to me I would never be empowered to do anything because of that yell of Facebook after six months. But while she was there she did raise this question about political ads.

S15: I did pose that question in what’s called an internal tribe at Facebook because I wanted to understand if we’re able to use fact checkers to start to actually address this misinformation problem on organic content. I asked the question why can’t we do the same thing in ads. I didn’t actually say we should or we shouldn’t. I asked why can’t we. What is the history. And a lot of the different panels and engineers started putting out all these different ideas which means there was a hunger to have this conversation at least.

S5: And again it’s not about Facebook telling politicians what they can and can’t say but I do know that there was zero appetite beyond the engineers in pens to actually even consider whether we should be looking at ads for misinformation.

S1: Yell doesn’t give a lot of interviews about her time at Facebook.

S10: I guess I wanted to ask you you were hesitant about about talking to us. I was why.

S6: I think there’s so much noise out there and I am not one of those people who wants to contribute to the noise. And I also I mean if you’re going to I hope this will make it on. I’m skeptical of the media not necessarily because I think in any way anybody in the media’s goal is to try to contribute to all of this craziness that’s going on but at the end of the day in order for you to actually get play on Facebook and on YouTube and get out there you also have to play the game and have a salacious click bait title and so it is very hard for me to trust someone else with my narrative and I otherwise I will also get reduced down to just sounding like a disgruntled employee who’s complaining when what I really want to talk about is what are some of the solutions to help make sure that we have a healthy Internet that we can preserve all of our values which includes freedom of speech but reduce the way this is harming our civil discourse and our democracy.

S10: One thing I’m curious about if you still had your old job what would you do with it now. What would be the things you wanted to worry about in the 2020 election cycle.

S6: So if I had my old job I wouldn’t actually be able to work on the things I care about because if I had my own job listen all of the different reactive things they’re doing. I mean they’re important. The fact that they are looking for an authentic pages that they’re looking for and I think to behavior all of those things are important and I give them credit for that work. But what I would want to do which I wouldn’t be able to do if I was still inside the company is talk about the business model to begin with and it’s not about whether or not Facebook should take money for political advertising. So the key core issue now is what should they do right. And it’s been broken down into this freedom of speech versus censorship conversation. So all of the issues we’re talking about whether or not you should let a politician run a fake ad whether or not you should have Facebook being the ones who are deciding what is truth or not. Those are all really important questions that society should have to decide right. Who is going to govern the Internet. Those broader questions but none of the real core issues will be solved before 2020 which is in my opinion a business model whose entire metric is about user engagement and keeping your eyes on their screens so that they can Hoover up all this data so that they can sell it to advertisers that is what is rewarding the most salacious content that is what is rewarding the biggest click bait stories.

S17: That is why I listen I assume this is even happening political advertising. Why the most salacious content is what’s going to grab the most people’s attention.

S18: In other words exciting or emotional content can be put right in front of the person most likely to react to it because of what Facebook knows about them. Then they share it and more people see it. That means a political ad that makes people excited or angry or outraged or scared is more likely to be seen by more people than a message that’s more vanilla talking to yell about this reminded me of something Charlie was l wrote in The New York Times recently.

S1: Charlie has been reporting on Facebook for almost 10 years. First of BuzzFeed now at the times he watched it evolve from a place where we share our personal news and photos of our kids to a sophisticated data collection machine that was used to make ads. He argues that Facebook s algorithm itself creates an uneven playing field.

S19: Most people didn’t think about the cultural impact of Facebook as an advertising arm until 2016 until the election until we realized that this was being leveraged in a way that that was really meaningful.

S10: You reported on the Trump campaign’s Facebook ads in in 2016. What did you learn about how a campaign effectively uses Facebook.

S19: What did they do so well it’s very similar to the traditional set of marketing that you know all the major brands. Coke and Pepsi and Procter and Gamble we use every day and what we saw from the Trump campaign and from 2016 was just an incredible use of this technology and to constantly be targeting and constantly refining a message to find the message that stuck that fit. Well what’s a message that works well on Facebook a message that works well on Facebook is a message that evokes a strong emotional response. So that can be sharing a cat video or you know cute puppies or your children or a great life moment getting engaged. Something like that that creates a a an emotion and a lot of times the one that they like to highlight is you know joy or humor or heartwarming.

S1: So when a Facebook ad creates that kind of emotional response and people share it or comment on it more people see it.

S19: The flip side of that is divisive Content is Content that enrages that they creates anger and fear and anxiety. Those are also equally strong emotions.

S10: We talked to Yael Eisenstadt about her experience working in election integrity operations. And one thing that she really focused on was saying look talking about political ads is maybe not the right conversation. That the the larger conversation is about targeting and the fact that you Charlie and I Lizzie see completely different versions of things. That seems to dovetail with a column you wrote for The New York Times saying that the very model itself makes the playing field not level.

S19: I think it’s terrifying that someone involved deeply in Facebook s efforts in this space feels that way. I mean I think that that’s really a remarkable thing. It’s one thing for me that I can feel that way right. I only sort of study the bad. I don’t get to see what’s happening you know in the gears of the machine. But to be in the gears of the machine and also say like this platform clearly incentivizes a certain type of behavior it rewards division and that the the overall business model. The thing that makes Facebook Facebook is sort of antithetical to like Democratic speech is really it’s a terrifying thing to think about but I think that’s true I think that’s what all of this is about when we look at this Georgetown speech and we look at this stuff that’s happening on Capitol Hill it all kind of dodges the fundamental question which is the thing that Facebook is it’s a platform for viral advertising and We’ve uploaded our public discourse onto it.

S1: That’s it for today’s show. We reached out to Facebook for comment on what Yale had to say. They didn’t get back to us by showtime. What next TBD is a new show that will be in your feed every Friday. The show is hosted by me Lizzie O’Leary and produced by Ethan Brooks. We’ll talk to you next week.