“Breaking News: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” all according to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ad that ran on Facebook last fall. Warren makes it clear later that the statement is completely false, but she is making a point. She says later, “But what Zuckerberg has done is given Trump free rein to lie on his platform… If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it. But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks.”
Social media sites are exempt from Federal Election Commission disclosure laws and are generally not held to regulatory standards by law. It is largely up to big-tech corporations and the politicians who make public statements to regulate themselves, despite many laws securing political neutrality and fairness in other media. American libel laws, which criminalize the publication of blatantly false and harmful information, pre-date the American Revolution. It is a standard American practice that protects people from malicious intent. But with the rise of the social media, the line between fact and fiction, and who is responsible for deciding that, has blurred.
Already, Trump has spent tens of millions of dollars on Facebook ads. Millions of people saw his campaign promote a blatant lie with doctored confessional footage of former vice president Joe Biden, insinuating that he offered billions to Ukrainian officials last fall. Free speech is now a weapon for those willing to spread misinformation, and Facebook has nothing to say on the matter.
Especially in the midst of a major election season, widespread political rhetoric runs rampant on social media sites. Whoever catches the most supportive attention wins, and it’s supposed to be a fair game. Yet, fairness doesn’t mean much when all sides play by different rules. If a disproportionate amount of viral misinformation is spread by one side, there is an automatic imbalance.
“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,” co-founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly said. “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”
These days, the ad-targeting capabilities of most sites prey on specific people who already believe in what the ads preach, increasing the chances they will share false information. Lies spread faster on social media than true statements ever could, and those clicks add up to billions for social media companies like Twitter and Facebook. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns paid $81 million in total for Facebook ads, lining corporate pockets.
To Twitter’s credit, it has banned all political advertising altogether. But after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with Trump to address concerns, Facebook said it will continue to not fact-check any political ads whatsoever.
They claim that removing false advertisements would infringe on free speech, but that is not the case. The first amendment exists to sustain pluralistic, democratic debate without favoring any single narrative. Social media feeds into confirmation biases that make this very difficult, especially when it weaponizes lies.
Remaining neutral is a statement in itself, especially because Facebook still employs algorithms that promote specific content to specific people for the most revenue gain. With such an important and definitive presidential election coming up, we cannot allow blatant lies to go viral. We cannot let private interests sway our political discourse.