|15 October, 2019

Facebook would be wise to just give up on politics

Social media firms are in a terrible position to police political ads, which often contain falsehoods

Image used for illustrative purpose. Attendees walk past a Facebook logo in San Jose, California, U.S., April 30, 2019.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Attendees walk past a Facebook logo in San Jose, California, U.S., April 30, 2019.

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK  - There is an elegant solution to Facebook’s chronic problem with political ads: it could stop running them altogether.

The $525 billion firm is the favorite punching bag for pols on both sides of the aisle. The latest fracas comes from the camp of Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator’s campaign ran a fake ad on the social network suggesting that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is endorsing President Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. election. The point was to highlight Facebook’s failure to fact-check dubious claims in its quest for profit. Facebook maintains that political advertising requires a higher bar for free speech.

Social media firms are in a terrible position to police political ads, which often contain falsehoods. Such content usually enjoys additional legal protection thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibitions on restricting free speech. The Federal Election Commission oversees campaign finance laws and is a more appropriate agency to deal with such issues. Designating that power to Facebook and others gives them greater influence over public discourse.

But without clear government rules, online platforms make up their own – with messy results. Twitter recently announced it would start flagging posts by public officials that violate their rules but are permitted because they are in the public’s interest. Jack Dorsey’s company, along with Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, declined a request from the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden to take down a Trump ad making false accusations. CNN refused to run the ad but has aired others that contain inaccurate information.

That puts social media outlets in the awkward position of having to make judgment calls without being accused of bias. Conservatives already complain that Facebook stifles its voices; Zuckerberg has been hosting informal meetings with likes of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson to smooth things over, according to Politico.

The outsized political spotlight is hardly worth it. For the 90-day period starting July 13 through Oct. 10, Facebook raked in roughly $136 million from political ads, according to its tally of state-by-state spending. That’s less than 1% of the $17.1 billion analysts forecast in ad sales for the third quarter, based on Refinitiv compilations. Folding up the political ad tent may be the winning move.

CONTEXT NEWS

- Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren challenged Facebook’s political advertising policy by running a fake ad on the social network. “Facebook changed their ads policy to allow politicians to run ads with known lies – explicitly turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine. This week, we decided to see just how far it goes,” Warren tweeted on Oct. 12.

- Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is challenging Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, called out Facebook after it refused to take down an ad from President Donald Trump’s campaign that contained false allegations.

- Facebook said that claims made in politicians’ ads were considered direct speech and ineligible for fact checking, according to a letter to the Biden campaign seen by Reuters.

(Editing by Rob Cox and Amanda Gomez)

© Reuters News 2019

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