This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
Facebook has said it does not want to play umpire to political advertising. Now, another platform has suggested a solution: Get out of the game.
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey announced Wednesday that his company would prohibit campaigns, super PACs and anyone else from paying to promote their causes in both electioneering ads and issue ads. “It’s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad ... well ... they can say whatever they want!’” the leader wrote under his @jack handle.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg probably knew whom those words were aimed at, but Dorsey added a winky face just in case. Twitter’s move is unquestionably a good one — for Twitter. The firm brought in less than $3 million in political ad dollars during the 2018 midterms. Facebook brought in $350 million. That means Twitter is earning plenty of positive PR while giving up very little revenue. But Dorsey’s arguments should be judged on their merits.
Dorsey identifies never-seen challenges to civic discourse that companies such as his have brought to the political advertising landscape: “machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deepfakes,” all of it “at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.” Facebook’s sophistication and scale dwarf Twitter’s, and the problems posed by its refusal to fact-check political ads are even more imposing. Congress, meanwhile, is miles away from putting in place transparency and accountability mechanisms that could mitigate the harms.
Facebook isn’t providing only a platform for campaigns to speak to audiences entirely of their choosing, as with other technologies such as robocalling. It’s providing a specific product: the capability, based on detailed behavioral data, to target more precise audiences than candidates could ever dream of doing alone, and then to refine that targeting based on who engages most with the often-false content. The company has essentially monetized the world’s most precise and powerful disinformation apparatus.
Digital campaigning at its best can be democratizing. A total restriction on online political ads would favor those with enough cash to appear on Americans’ television screens — as well as those keen enough to game companies’ rules. But the internet more generally is democratizing at its best, too, and recent years have shown that when the harmful is allowed to run rampant, the helpful is crowded out. Facebook believes society will be better off if it stays on the political advertising field. Now it needs to step up to the plate and call lies out when it sees them.