The war of words over online political ads is heating up, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin calling out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for permitting spurious content to air on the site in an open letter published Thursday in the New York Times.
Sorkin, who won a screenwriting Oscar for the Social Network, the 2010 movie about Facebook’s founding, chastised Zuckerberg for his refusal to set a policy banning blatantly false political ads as the presidential election looms.
Sorkin noted Zuckerberg’s objection to the film at the time, which the screenwriter summarized as a “public accusation that the movie was a lie.”
“It was hard not to feel the irony while I was reading excerpts from your recent speech at Georgetown University, in which you defended — on free speech grounds — Facebook’s practice of posting demonstrably false ads from political candidates,” Sorkin wrote.
Sorkin acknowledged Zuckerberg’s appeal for free speech, but rejected a First Amendment defense for allowing false and potentially dangerous political ads to permeate a website that’s used by roughly a third of the world’s population and is a primary source of news for tens of millions of Americans.
“[T]this can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together,” Sorkin wrote. “Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.”
Facebook has come under increasing political fire for its policy on political ads. Earlier this month, Zuckerberg was grilled by House lawmakers on that issue and a host of other controversies involving his company, ranging from privacy to the plan to roll out a digital currency.
Spokespeople for Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meantime, another major player in the social media world is taking a very different approach. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced on Wednesday that his company will no longer accept political ads of any sort.
“We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally,” Dorsey wrote on a Twitter thread. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.”
Dorsey argued that political messages on Twitter should generate influence as users opt to retweet those posts or follow the authoring account, and that paying for reach distorts the process.
“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” Dorsey wrote.
“Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information and deep fakes,” he wrote. “All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”
It’s impossible to miss the contrast with Facebook’s approach, and when Dorsey offers the following, it seems a fair reading to view it as a veiled shot at Twitter’s larger rival:
“[I]t’s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad … well … they can say whatever they want!'”