AP Photo/Jon Elswick
Peter Minowitz is a professor of political science at Santa Clara University and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
Everyone knows that politics has never been an arena in which citizens generally encounter truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. False political ads, moreover, threaten all five of the “approaches” that the Markkula Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making outlines: Utilitarian, Rights, Fairness/Justice, Common Good, and Virtue. But these goals could also be impaired by some plans that have been proposed for censoring political ads. Short ads—like headlines—are usually compelled to cut corners, and zeal regularly impels people to describe unwelcome claims as lies.
The rest of this posting will explore the recent debate about Facebook’s commitment to posting political ads irrespective of their accuracy.
In late September, President Trump ran a 30-second anti-Biden ad on Facebook. The ad has ignited a media firestorm. According to Timothy Egan of the New York Times, for example, the ad, which conveys “false and debunked information about Joe Biden,” is a “virus planted in the bloodstream of public opinion.” According to my friend Subbu Vincent, the Markkula Center’s Director of Journalism and Media Ethics, the ad is “a textbook case” of “deception.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, has blithely proclaimed that the ad contains multiple “falsehoods” about Biden. I shall argue that these criticisms are all tarnished by exaggeration.
Here is the ad’s key claim: that Biden had “promised Ukraine a billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company.” To demonstrate the falsehood, Subbu invokes “all the reporting from both sides of the Atlantic finding evidence to the contrary.”
Reporting has indeed demolished two unwarranted inferences that the ad invites us to make: that the Ukrainian prosecutor was striving to unmask corruption in Burisma Holdings (a Ukrainian gas/energy company) and that Vice-President Biden intervened to protect his son’s financial interests. The ad, I assume, was intended to deceive us on these points, and its makers should therefore be scolded.
Expunging the ad, however, is an extreme response, and I have encountered no evidence that refutes the claims the ad actually makes. The prosecutor (Victor Shokin) was investigating a company that was paying Hunter Biden huge monthly sums (up to $50,000) to serve on its Board of Directors, and Vice-President Biden (in March 2016) did threaten to withhold a billion dollars of U.S. aid. The ad includes video of Biden’s boasting about what he had accomplished: “If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.” Even the Times concedes that Hunter Biden, who had “just been discharged from the Navy Reserve for drug use,” had “no apparent experience in Ukraine or natural gas” and that there were concerns within the Obama administration about the propriety of his engagement with Burisma (see here). The sleaze factor is dwarfed by Trump’s, but doesn’t it warrant attention?
A similar Facebook ad was posted by a PAC roughly two weeks after the initial Trump-sponsored ad, and some critics have improperly conflated them. The second ad drifted farther toward falsehood by alleging “[b]lackmailing” and offering this sketch: “When his son’s company was investigated for corruption, Joe Biden used his office to crush the case.” Because this ad was not sponsored by a politician or a candidate, Facebook agreed to remove it.
Existing Facebook policies, I assume, would squelch an obviously false political ad that posed a “clear and present danger,” e.g., by alleging that Biden was abusing children at his campaign headquarters to entertain the staff. Such an allegation, furthermore, would open the door for a libel suit. The prospects here differ for broadcast networks (e.g., ABC, CBS, NBC, and their local networks), who are obliged by the Communications Act to “air ads that come from legally qualified political candidates” and are therefore immunized against liability suits.
My purpose here is neither to defend Trump, whom I abhor, nor to impugn Biden. I would concede, moreover, that serious consideration should be given to proposals that Facebook and other social media ban all political ads (Twitter recently banned ads for issues as well as candidates), prevent ads from using microtargeting (see here and here), prohibit ads within a week or two of an election, or automatically provide links to rebuttals. Requiring or pressuring Facebook to vet ads via fact-checking, however, could invite it to act in an excessively partisan manner that undermines the common good along with the rights of candidates. Although the high-status sources I quote above had more time to investigate the controversy than Facebook censors presumably would, they all faltered in assessing the ad.
I do not hesitate to condemn the evils Facebook has perpetrated via privacy abuses, Russian bots, and other transgressions. But I think that Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown has been pilloried unjustly. Among its many compelling points are these:
we work with independent fact checkers to stop hoaxes that are going viral from spreading. But misinformation is a pretty broad category. A lot of people like satire, which isn’t necessarily true. A lot of people talk about their experiences through stories that may be exaggerated or have inaccuracies, but speak to a deeper truth in their lived experience. We need to be careful about restricting that. Even when there is a common set of facts, different media outlets tell very different stories emphasizing different angles. There’s a lot of nuance here. And while I worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.
Banning campaign ads, which might seem to be an easy fix, would pose a problem that Zuckerberg proceeds to sketch. Issue ads greatly outnumber candidate ads, so banning the latter could give disproportionate impact to the former. And because the country is so polarized regarding many complex issues—e.g., immigration, taxation, abortion, health care, climate change, trade policy, affirmative action, and the Middle East—it would be unreasonable to demand that ads about them be pillars of precision. As a Washington Post editorial notes, furthermore, prohibiting online political ads “would favor those with enough cash to appear on Americans’ television screens.”
Mark Zuckerberg admits that political ads can have pernicious consequences, but his reflections on the ills that might ensue from banning or vetting them deserve patient, meticulous, and open-minded consideration.
 I sympathize with people who would challenge these two claims from the ad: that Biden “promised” the money (rather than simply threatened to withhold a loan guarantee); that Burisma was “his son’s company.” But would we want Facebook to comparably nitpick content in short ads that issue from Biden, Sanders, or Warren (e.g., the recent Warren ad asserting that our government “works for the rich and the powerful” but “leaves everyone else behind”)? The Trump tweet that accompanied the Ukraine ad avoided the word “promise,” saying merely that Biden had “threatened to withhold $1 billion in foreign aid.” The tweet, though, drifted into lying when it added that the prosecutor had been investigating “a lucrative contract held by” Hunter Biden.