No: Face­book’s po­lit­i­cal ad ex­emp­tion pol­icy is a dan­ger to our democ­racy

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Yosef Ge­tachew is the Me­dia & Democ­racy pro­gram di­rec­tor at Com­mon Cause. He wrote this for In­sid­

In re­cent weeks, Pres­i­dent Trump ran an ad on Face­book with dis­cred­ited al­le­ga­tions about former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den’s re­la­tion­ship with Ukraine. De­spite re­quests from Bi­den’s cam­paign to take down the ad, Face­book re­fused, stat­ing the ad didn’t vi­o­late its poli­cies on po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. Face­book’s new pol­icy ex­empts politi­cians’ po­lit­i­cal ads from third-party fact-check­ers.

The ex­emp­tion ef­fec­tively al­lows any politi­cian to run ads on the plat­form that con­tain de­cep­tive, false or mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion. Given the pres­i­dent’s propen­sity to lie, it’s easy to un­der­stand why many are call­ing this the “Trump ex­emp­tion.”

Face­book’s rea­son­ing for this ex­emp­tion is that it pri­or­i­tizes free ex­pres­sion and deems po­lit­i­cal speech as news­wor­thy con­tent that should not be sub­ject to the plat­form’s com­mu­nity stan­dards. To be sure, free ex­pres­sion is an im­por­tant value to up­hold in our democ­racy. But the rise of so­cial me­dia plat­forms has changed the way we re­ceive news and in­for­ma­tion com­pared to tra­di­tional me­dia plat­forms.

Po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates are also spend­ing an in­creas­ing amount of money to run ads on so­cial me­dia to reach and in­flu­ence vot­ers. That’s why Face­book’s hands-off pol­icy to­ward po­lit­i­cal ads poses a dan­ger to our democ­racy. Giv­ing politi­cians free rein to spread lies us­ing po­lit­i­cal ads shows a dis­re­gard for the role Face­book and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms play in dis­sem­i­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion to vot­ers and how po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates can abuse th­ese poli­cies to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion.

First, it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the unique role Face­book and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms play when it comes to ad­ver­tis­ing. Face­book’s busi­ness model is based on col­lect­ing as much data on its users as pos­si­ble. It then shares rel­e­vant data points, in­clud­ing users’ de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion, with ad­ver­tis­ers for tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing. This means po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates can tar­get their ads to vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties who may be more re­cep­tive to false or mis­lead­ing state­ments.

This is in­her­ently dif­fer­ent from po­lit­i­cal ads aired on tra­di­tional me­dia (broad­cast sta­tions or ca­ble net­works) where the en­tire view­ing au­di­ence can see the ad.

Po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates have ex­ploited Face­book’s tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the past. For ex­am­ple, in 2016 then-can­di­date Trump ran ads on Face­book tar­get­ing African Amer­i­cans to dis­cour­age them from vot­ing in the elec­tion. Now, the pres­i­dent is tak­ing ad­van­tage of Face­book’s ad ex­emp­tion pol­icy to run ads with mis­lead­ing state­ments tar­get­ing se­nior cit­i­zens. Face­book be­lieves that vot­ers should de­cide for them­selves what politi­cians are say­ing. But when politi­cians can tar­get a sub­set of vot­ers with false and mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion, it di­min­ishes the abil­ity to openly de­bate th­ese claims, erects bar­ri­ers to voter par­tic­i­pa­tion and ul­ti­mately un­der­mines the in­tegrity of our elec­tions.

Sec­ond, Face­book be­lieves its ad ex­emp­tion pol­icy al­lows it to re­main neu­tral when it comes to po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. But Face­book is not a con­tent­neu­tral plat­form. That is to say, Face­book dis­plays con­tent to its users based on al­go­rithms that op­ti­mize for en­gage­ment.

Con­tent on the plat­form that gen­er­ates the most en­gage­ment tends to be provoca­tive speech, mis­in­for­ma­tion or sen­sa­tion­al­ist sto­ries. Al­low­ing politi­cians to run ads with false state­ments takes ad­van­tage of Face­book’s en­gage­ment-fo­cused al­go­rithms to am­plify harm­ful con­tent.

It should come as no sur­prise that Trump’s re­cent ad with mis­lead­ing state­ments on Bi­den re­ceived mil­lions of views. By choos­ing to ex­empt po­lit­i­cal ads, Face­book is not re­main­ing neu­tral but in­stead pro­mot­ing con­tent that is more in­flam­ma­tory and dam­ag­ing to our democ­racy.

So the ques­tion be­comes how should Face­book han­dle ads from po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates that con­tain false or mis­lead­ing state­ments. The eas­i­est so­lu­tion would be for Face­book to stop run­ning po­lit­i­cal ads al­to­gether. But given that this is un­likely to hap­pen, there are cer­tainly steps Face­book could take to mit­i­gate the harms from de­cep­tive po­lit­i­cal ads. For ex­am­ple, Face­book could limit the abil­ity for po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates to run ads that are mi­cro­tar­geted to spe­cific com­mu­ni­ties. Face­book could also la­bel po­lit­i­cal ads with dis­claimers that the ads have not gone through third-party factcheck­ing.

What­ever steps Face­book takes, it’s clear that the plat­form can­not stand idly by and al­low politi­cians to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion. The 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion proved how for­eign ac­tors can use so­cial me­dia to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and sow dis­cord among vot­ers to in­flu­ence elec­toral out­comes. With the 2020 elec­tion around the cor­ner, Face­book’s ex­emp­tion pol­icy in­vites politi­cians to im­i­tate Rus­sia’s dis­in­for­ma­tion play­book to un­der­mine our elec­tions and put our democ­racy at risk.

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