SONG: Facebook is right to not censor political ads

A ban on false political ads would lead to an erosion of our country’s free political discourse

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Americans should applaud Zuckerberg for refusing to censor political ads, as this decision serves to safeguard free political discourse.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Facebook came under fire by regulators in April 2018 when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had used millions of peoples’ Facebook profiles without their consent for political advertising purposes during the 2016 election cycle. With the 2020 elections fast approaching, the political pressure is on for Facebook to take a more active stance in monitoring and censoring untruthful political advertisements on its platform,  most vocally from Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ,D-N.Y. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has instead announced that his firm would take a hands-off approach, allowing all political ads, even false ones, to circulate on its platforms. While Facebook has had a history of questionable corporate ethics, Americans should applaud Zuckerberg for refusing to censor political ads, as this decision serves to safeguard free political discourse, a cornerstone of our democracy. 

The main problem with censoring untrue political ads is that political speech usually does not have a clear true-false dichotomy. This point, however, is either naively or purposely overlooked by certain lawmakers. Ocasio-Cortez, in an Oct. 23 congressional hearing on Facebook, asked Zuckerberg, “So you won't take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that's just a pretty simple yes or no.” 

In reality, it is impossible to judge the truthfulness of most political statements. For example, liberals have long held as undeniable truth that climate change is manmade, but conservatives, including President Donald Trump, have questioned the direct link between human behavior and climate change. Another controversial topic is the existence of the gender pay gap, which some assert is the result of discrimination, but the data shows that certain factors other than discrimination mostly account for the disparity. On these issues and more, conservatives and liberals would clash on whether political ads contain truthful information or not, creating a practical problem for deciding which ads to censor for spreading misinformation. 

Given the disagreement inherent to political speech, insisting that speech is either true or false creates a dangerous framework that can lead to weaponized and politicized censorship. If indeed ads are either truth or lies, then it becomes easier to justify that technology firms, and eventually all media outlets, should be punished for spreading lies. Indeed, Warren has called Facebook a “disinformation for-profit machine,” and pitched to her supporters that the firm should broken up. To avoid the wrath of politicians in such an environment, tech firms would constantly be pressured to cater to the political party in power. Democrats today scold Facebook for publishing untrue Trump ads targeting Biden, but tomorrow they could demand that Facebook take down ads claiming that Warren is not Native-American. 

Inspired by the inconclusive findings of the Mueller investigation, Republicans could just as easily retaliate and pressure Facebook to take down untrue ads claiming that Trump colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election. The result would be a partisan assault on free political speech, foreshadowing an Orwellian world in which those in power classify all hostile statements as “lies” and remove them from public discourse. While the First Amendment prohibits Congress from directly forcing Facebook to remove content from its platform, Facebook would still face pressure to please politicians in power. 

Fortunately, an optimal solution to the problem of voter misinformation can be found in the following words from Thomas Jefferson, “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Instead of engaging in censorship to restrict the spread of misinformation, Facebook and other social media giants should let all political ads circulate in an open marketplace of ideas, but encourage independent fact-checking organizations to mark political ads that are misleading or that contain false information. Currently, Facebook pays independent organizations from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network to flag and remove false user content posts. Facebook should leverage this existing network, giving fact-checkers the authority to label, but not remove political ads containing blatantly false information. This way, Facebook users will be able to judge the validity of political ads themselves. 

Political misinformation on social networks is a complex problem with significant implications for election outcomes, but censorship is not the solution. As the chief executive of a company constantly under fire from Congress, Zuckerberg deserves credit for standing firm on this point amidst heavy political pressure and threats of breaking up his company. Hopefully other tech executives will follow Zuckerberg’s lead to defend on their companies’ platforms our country’s sacred tradition of free political discourse. 

Richard Song is a Viewpoint Writer for the Cavalier Daily Opinion Section. He may be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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