Programming note: Zoe and I are both on assignment this week, and The Interface will be off Thursday while we work on some special reports. The silver lining is that Monday’s issue will be very long!
Yesterday here we talked about whether politicians should be able to lie in their Facebook ads
. I argued that they should be: Facebook ads are public and searchable, and if a politician or political party is out there telling lies, that seems like an important and useful thing for a democracy to know about. Facebook is big and its CEO is unaccountable to any electorate, and so I would rather the company not referee political speech.
Many readers see things differently, though, so I wanted to air out a few of your takes.
The most common response I got was a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too argument in which citizens should push for (1) Facebook to be broken up but (2) referee political speech until that happens. Here’s one reader take:
In reference to Facebook, you said “To worry about Facebook’s vast size and influence — and I do! — while also demanding that it referee political speech seems like an odd contradiction.”
I don’t think it’s a contradiction at all. I think regardless of the size of a company, it should strive to eliminate or at least label misinformation including and perhaps especially in political ads. Those two issues are able to live side by side easily, in my opinion.
I think that’s basically right, though it doesn’t really address my larger concern, which is the giant unaccountable corporation refereeing what politicians can say.
Another common response was that the whole thing just seems a little too convenient — Facebook gets to wash its hands of fact-checking on some of the toughest questions it will face, and reap all the profits? Here’s another reader:
With the company publishing advertising content and then having it examined by third-party fact-checkers, the process might be more democratic and fair than if it were done by either Facebook or the state, but it also means that there is always a possibility that false advertising has severe implications as it is broadcast across its platform, even if it is debunked later on.
In this sense, it means Facebook is practically reaping the benefits of such lax policies with regards to advertising (attracting a wide range of clients and the money from publishing advertisement) and also avoiding the responsibilities and costs associated with actually taking decisions proactively.
Another reader put it more concisely:
If it’s too difficult to make sure political ads are not full of lies, they shouldn’t accept political ads. Kind of like a supermarket not selling food that they aren’t sure won’t give you food poisoning.
But none of this really engages with my larger frustration here, which is that people seem to be holding Facebook responsible for politicians’ lies when we could be holding the politicians responsible instead. I get the fear that we live in a post-truth world where people just believe whatever their party’s Facebook ad tells them to believe, but it also seems defeatist and more than a little patronizing.
As it so happens, Mark Zuckerberg discussed how the company moderates political speech in the leaked audio obtained by The Verge
. In this section, which has not previously been published, an employee has asked whether Facebook ought to model its content policies strictly after the First Amendment. (A senator recently proposed making this the law of the land
.) Zuckerberg says no, that most people want the company to go much further than the First Amendment. In the rest of his answer, Zuckerberg describes the difficulty of making decisions about what is misinformation when it comes to a subject like immigration in Europe, and suggests he is resigned to facing criticism here no matter what he does.
He’s talking about moderation generally, not Facebook’s decision to avoid making these calls on political ads. But his thinking here adds some color to why he would make that decision:
Mark Zuckerberg: Overall, I don’t really think that people don’t want us to moderate content. There’s like 20 categories of harmful content that we focus on. They’re all different. Everything ranging from terrorist propaganda to bullying to incitement of violence to gory content to pornography. … 18 out of the 20 categories are not that controversial. There’s some controversy and each one on the edges of exactly how you set the policies. But broadly speaking, [they] are not the thing that people are focused on.
There are two categories that are very sensitive politically, and they are hate speech and misinformation.
And the issue on this that we’ve run into on hate speech … a lot of people think that we need to be more aggressive in moderating content that is offensive or basically would make certain groups of people feel unsafe. And then there are other groups on the other side of these debates who feel like they’re engaging in legitimate political discourse.
It’s always hard to talk about this in the context of your own political environment. So I find it a little easier to depressurize this, and think about some of the European debates that are going on around migration, and some of the challenges of integrating large numbers of people who have come into these different countries fleeing Syria and other places. The debate that goes on is that well, some of the stuff ends up being overly generalized and feeling hateful, some of the people on the other side [say] “well, I’m trying to discuss the real issues around … trying to integrate lots of people into a society at once.” Like, we need to be able to have these debates. Where’s the line?
That’s really hard, and we’re kind of right in the middle of that. I don’t think anyone says that we shouldn’t, that we should [follow the] First Amendment. But that’s a really tricky balance.
The other one on misinformation, I think is really tricky. Because on the one hand, I think everyone would basically agree that you don’t want the content that’s getting the most distribution to be flagrant hoaxes that are tricking people. But the other side of the debate on this is that a lot of people express their life and their experiences by telling stories, and sometimes the stories are true and sometimes they’re not. And people use satire and they use fiction … and the question is, how do you differentiate and draw the line between satire or a fictional story? Where is the line?
It’s not that it’s 100 percent difficult, but there are new nuances in doing this. A lot of people feel like in a world where a lot of the people who are arbitrating what is misinformation and doing fact-checking tend to be left of center, that that is getting in the way of an ability to express something that they feel is real and that matches their lived experience. So you want to do both, right? You want to make sure that you give people a voice to express their lived experience in a civil way, and you want to make sure that the stuff that’s going viral is not … blatant, flagrant hoaxes that are going to be harmful.
So those two are by far the most fraught. But overall … I haven’t had anyone come to us and say, “please allow terrorist propaganda on your service.” Even the people who are putting forth the bills in Congress for a debate saying that they want more openness on the platform. So I don’t think it’s gonna go in that direction. I just think the reality is we’re kind of stuck in this nuanced area, and will continue to get it coming from a lot of different sides as we try to navigate this as well as possible.“