Anita Varma is the assistant director of Journalism and Media Ethics, as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.
Debates over whether tech companies should fact-check political ads or prohibit them altogether have continued with a rising pitch since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke at Georgetown University in October where he announced that the company would not fact-check political ads, followed by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s announcement that Twitter would no longer permit political ads. Both decisions were met with chagrin as well as applause, and offered further indication that there is little consensus around the role platforms can and should play in deciding what’s true versus what constitutes “political falsehood.”
At the same time, the embedded premises of this debate often evade scrutiny. Politicians, it seems, are expected to be lying, and so what’s up for debate is what role Facebook should play in mitigating amplification of that practice — not troubling the practice itself. Also (by the way), political advertising is positioned as a cornerstone of elections that no longer needs any explanation or justification.
“Should Facebook fact-check political ads?” should lead us to ask two questions (at least) about the question itself:
1) Why are politicians expected to be lying?
2) Why are electoral politics intertwined with advertising?
Answers to these questions may not be mysterious, but should remain far from taken-for-granted from an ethical perspective: first, politicians are lying because lies are often the most expedient route to achieving their ends. Second, political messaging takes place through advertising because there are not viable media alternatives with respect to scale and targeting, and even the most naïve politician knows that ad spending can make or break a campaign.
Both of these answers should give us pause, and deserve more debate than they are receiving amidst narrow focus on Facebook and its ilk.
Politicians lying is far from a novel practice and certainly a pre-digital one, yet longstanding unethical practices are still unethical. Presuming politicians will lie and using this presumption as the point of departure for debate — rather than the topic of debate itself — normalizes the practice to a worrisome extent. The news story is not just that Facebook is permitting politicians to amplify lies, but also that many politicians are lying and, if the past predicts the future, expected to do so regularly.
Calling for a guard rail against these lies to come from within the advertising industry quickly goes from curious to bewildering, along with the second embedded presumption that politics and advertising are a natural pairing rather than a contradiction in terms.
Politics and advertising have little to do with each other for precisely the reasons that both detractors and proponents of Facebook’s policies have argued: politics, in a democracy, is about a conversation. Advertising is, by definition, a form of one-way persuasion. Ads do not seek to spark discussion or inform the electorate in advance of voting. Instead, ads (even when free of “falsehoods”) seek to convince audiences simply to vote for the candidate featured.
Yet the ease with which the phrase “political advertising” has become a topic of focus and discussion speaks to the success of the Citizens United ruling to codify the flow of capital into elections. With the ruling that corporations are entitled to free speech in the form of unrestricted monetary contributions to campaigns through political action committees, the commodification of politics has unfolded as critics worried it would when the Supreme Court issued the ruling in 2010. In the case of political advertising on social media, why candidates for political office both want and need advertising in order to be elected ends up being treated as an obvious truth rather than a product of a constructed system that is contributing to any semblance of democratic debate becoming a dilute caricature of itself.
Internet companies’ advertising policies matter, certainly. At the same time, how these companies structure their policies need to be understood in terms of the market-based worldview that shape their organizational logic and goals. In other words, as we head quickly into the 2020 presidential election, we should be wary of willingly assimilating the vocabulary of democratic discourse into the trappings of online advertising platforms just because these platforms would prefer to do so. A square peg can be jammed into a round hole, but is unlikely to retain its structural integrity and may soon be jammed beyond repair.