Down in the Well

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© Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

© Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Article from Issue 229/2019
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For the most popular social media platform in the world, Facebook certainly is taking a lot of heat. In 2016, they were an unwitting vehicle for manipulative ads from foreign powers, echoing and amplifying false narratives in the US presidential election, then later in Brexit and other elections around the globe.

Dear Reader,

For the most popular social media platform in the world, Facebook certainly is taking a lot of heat. In 2016, they were an unwitting vehicle for manipulative ads from foreign powers, echoing and amplifying false narratives in the US presidential election, then later in Brexit and other elections around the globe.

In the 2020 election, Facebook is no longer unwitting, and they have reportedly snapped to action with a detailed ad policy. Have they put this urgent problem to rest? Doesn't look like it so far.

For the most part, I try to be apolitical in this space. People certainly try to guess my politics, based on my Linux cred, as well as my haircut, my dearth of business suits, and all the other factors people use to guess your politics. But actually, I don't think bullying and dishonesty (two of the problems previously associated with the Facebook platform) are political issues: They are human issues that everyone should care about.

On my side of the ocean, both sides of the political spectrum seem equally irritated with Facebook. One side accuses Facebook of a radical, West Coast, left-wing bias. The other side accuses Facebook of amoral pursuit of profits at the expense of integrity and civic duty. We were all wondering how this would shake out with the new election and Facebook's new policies. So far, it isn't off to a very good start.

In a letter to a candidate who objected to an allegedly false ad, Facebook has stated that they will not be using their third-party fact checkers to check political ads. According to the letter [1]:

…when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact checkers.

However, if a politician seeks to share a viral hoax – like a link to an article or a video or photo, that has been previously debunked, we will demote that content, display related information from fact checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements. That is different from a politician's own claim or statement – even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere. If the claim is made directly by a politician on their page, in an ad, or on their website, it is considered direct speech and ineligible for our third-party fact checking program.

In other words, if you want to circulate a hoax, conspiracy theory, or other lie, just put it in your own words, and Facebook will help you do it. The tone of the company's correspondence continues to imply that their hands are tied by free speech issues, but no such constraint exists today or ever has in the past. Ad platforms have always made choices about what ads they would like to associate with their own reputation. In fact, the ad that provoked the controversy that resulted in Facebook's letter was actually rejected previously by a cable news network for its inaccuracy before Facebook accepted it and gave it over five million views [2].

In other content areas, Facebook reserves the right to reject ads for ethical reasons. For instance, if you traffic in payday loans or diet miracles, Facebook doesn't mind turning down your ad. If you use profanity, Facebook will send you to the door. But if you lie about another living person who is a candidate for office, you're in the clear.

I wouldn't want to be Facebook. I understand they are in a bit of a bind – since they are now accused of being a monopoly, any form of subjective criteria for evaluating political ads will look like they are imposing their will on the electorate. They could, of course, ban all political ads, as Josh Constine suggested recently at TechCrunch. That would certainly rescue them from the controversy, but it would cost them lots and lots and lots and lots of money, which seems to be what this whole thing is about anyway.

I remember learning in school about the old ladies who supposedly hid their bibles in the well when Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800. They were sure Jefferson was going to come take away their bibles, because that's what they were told by Jefferson's opponents. It all seemed so backward and strange at the time I learned it – a window into a bygone world where people could be so manipulated and misled.

It is weird to think that that world is coming back, and companies like Facebook are ready and willing to provide the forum.

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