Facebook Ad Policy Impedes Democracy

Zuckerberg misses the mark

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Illustration by Rose Collins

If you were on Facebook on Oct. 24, you might have seen any number of ads that seemed normal — long shots of idyllic scenery, inspiring narration and uplifting music. At least one of these ads, however, was a lie.

“We believe in the Green New Deal [GND],” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in the video, as a “Conservatives for a Green New Deal” logo faded into the frame. The problem? Senator Graham has vehemently opposed the GND, and “Conservatives for a Green New Deal” doesn’t exist.

Facebook recently revealed it doesn’t fact check the political ads that run on its site. In response, liberal political action committee the Really Online Lefty League released the “Conservatives for a Green New Deal” ad on Oct. 24.

A few weeks prior, on Oct. 9, President Donald Trump posted a false ad about democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to take responsibility for his company promoting misinformation, Senator Elizabeth Warren posted a fake ad claiming Zuckerberg endorsed Trump’s  reelection. 

Warren’s ad was a play to call out Zuckerberg’s policy, but the real danger of fake news lies in vile white supremacist content, deep fakes and false political punditry. 

Facebook argues it has no place interfering with users’ right to free speech. But for a company so quick to defend the First Amendment, its political censorship is surprisingly inconsistent. In March, Facebook removed a Warren ad about breaking up Big Tech, specifically Google, Facebook and Amazon.

“It’s clear: Silicon Valley billionaires are willing to sell out our democracy to protect their riches,” Warren said in an email to supporters.

This online misinformation imperils our democracy, as young people who receive their news online are more frequently exposed to false and biased information. These voters are beginning to shape our future — for them to be anything but well-informed makes them targets of sensationalized propaganda. 

Facebook employees have recognized this reality. A letter of dissent signed by 250 employees was posted on internal Facebook message boards for two weeks before being taken down in late October. The letter called the company’s policy a threat to what Facebook stands for.

Many politicians have taken issue with Facebook, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who on Oct. 23 grilled Zuckerberg in front of Congress about the parameters of his company’s policy.

“Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here,” Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg, spawning the idea for the Really Online Lefty League’s GND video.

The reach of social media is expanding so rapidly it’s impossible to predict what it could become, but Facebook allowing lies does not bode well for the future of media consumption. Amid the Facebook controversy, Twitter just decided to ban political ads. 

“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” tweeted Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”

Twitter’s move to ban political ads remains controversial, as the line between political and non-political speech is blurred. Currently, environmental groups cannot post ads on Twitter, while fossil fuel companies  can.

Facebook may have started as a social network, but it has now fully embraced its status as an advertising platform, making more than $16 billion in ad profits in the last quarter of 2018. It’s time social media platforms take responsibility for the content their users  see. 

Profits from political ads are projected to comprise less than 0.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue next year, proving their motives aren’t primarily financial. What does Facebook have to gain from false advertising? We might not know now, but there’s a lot to lose when we give corporations the benefit of the doubt.