Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter (AP Photos)
Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
This article is a follow up to a previous post, “Ad Wars: The missing American public.”
There has been much thoughtful debate on the pros and cons of Twitter’s statement of intent to ban political ads, in the context of Facebook’s decision not to. But lurking underneath this debate is a deep and devilish design that isn’t about to go away.
Let’s look at one useful part of the debate itself — the differences between broadcast and social media. Forced to respond to moral pressure, Facebook’s Zuckerberg defended its decision to allow political ads in the name of free speech and also in comparison to broadcast media that are required to run ads from competing political players. Twitter’s Dorsey defended his decision to initiate a ban citing that the online political ads presented entirely new challenges to civic discourse, and it was worth taking a step back. And yet social media ads allow smaller and less well-funded actors to take on big incumbents using political ads that cost less than broadcast. There are no easy answers here.
Yet, one problem did not get much attention in the debate, though Dorsey’s justifications came close.
Despite their morally-grounded claims of connecting humanity for the greater good and offering voice to billions of people, social platforms can also enable great harm, sometimes at frightening speed. By liking, sharing, retweeting and forwarding, we the users become the social broadcasting affordance itself, and algorithms are our engine. These features are all enabled on ad posts too. So when we like, share and retweet political ads carrying lies and falsehoods, we drive their reach further. And when political ads use divisive and manipulative messaging that exploit tribalistic identity and emotions, it is our biases and behavior that deliver the social broadcasting to the messages or ads with which we engage.
In sum, we, the people who use social media, become ethically implicated with the platforms in the harm such messages cause to democratic discourse. This is a fundamental difference between political ads on broadcast media and social. Yes, the same deceptive political ads may run on broadcast too. Such ads have been running for years in American hypercompetitive politics. But distribution or reach in broadcast media is not created in participation with people. Broadcast is a traditional one-to-many medium, where messages last on air for 30 seconds, and after we consume them, we’re done.
Recognizing this situation then warrants a new set of questions concerning the ethics of design. They include:
- Should social media features such as like, share, retweet and forward be offered universally to ALL of our posts and ads?
- If Facebook wants to say they are modeling their ad policy after broadcast media, can they follow the same for the distribution of political ads too, i.e., take out the social share features and custom audience targeting altogether?
- Let’s say political ads were sent to fact-checkers, and some ads are indeed flagged with false information notices. Why not also consider disabling the social buttons for those ads?
These questions go to the core of product development and design as a discipline. They get less attention and must be elevated in our discourse about social and democracy. Aside from all the high-minded discourse on free speech and bans, we also need to sum up a creative and ethical will to ask what democratic frictions and guardrails are needed on social media.