Josh Constine, editor-in-chief of TechCrunch has an interesting proposal: if Facebook can’t prevent its platform being used for misinformation during elections, then it must ban all election campaign ads. In other words, our democracy is too important to be put at risk by misuse of a social network.
What does Facebook say? Its advertising policy is not to accept advertisements that contain lies (specifically, “misleading, erroneous or false content”) and to avoid or remove them in such cases, but the company specifically exempts campaign ads from that rule. Facebook’s reasons are clear: falsehood in politics is a subjective matter and cannot be resolved through technology and requires other resources. And in fact, does anyone think that allowing Facebook to decide what is true or false in politics could ever be a good idea?
The fact that Facebook cannot prevent the spread of lies on its platform related to election campaigns has given some candidates carte blanche to do just that in order to alarm or polarize the population. Facebook’s nonsensical arguments have already been exposed by, Elizabeth Warren, who is running in the Democrat presidential primaries, who placed an ad on the platform stating that Mark Zuckerberg explicitly endorses the candidacy of Donald Trump (and then clarified that it was a lie a few lines below).
We need to ask ourselves two questions here: what differentiates political campaigns from any other type of marketing? The belief that politicians lie when they are campaigning is widely held, but we’re talking about promises that are not kept, rather than facts. This is very different to making claims that are patently false, such as that the Democrats intend to repeal the Second Amendment of the Constitution (the right to own and carry weapons), something that no Democratic candidate has said so far, in order to polarize the vote. That, clearly, is a lie, and should be banned on Facebook and anywhere else.
The second question is what differentiates campaigns on social networks from those on other types of media. The answer is simple: its enormous capacity for segmentation based on variables of all kinds. This allows politicians who lie to direct their lies at those groups identified as more vulnerable or sensitive to those lies, providing a much greater capacity for manipulation. An obvious lie spread through a popular channel will generally be met with an immediate popular response, probably through social networks, which can assume that a large part of the population has contextual information on the subject, turning the lie against its issuer. On a social network, however, the lie can be managed, it can be spread through certain less critical or reactive groups, and it can be disseminated with progressive strategies, like a snowball that rolls down a hillside, and that in many cases comes to us through the profiles of friends or acquaintances we trust. We are less equipped, less prepared as a society to deal with lies spread through social networks.
As Josh Constine says, when a game becomes dangerous, we don’t get rid of the referee, we stop playing. The evidence is now overwhelming as to the danger of the game, not only in the United States previous election and in the next one, but in up to seventy countries that have already been targets of political disinformation campaigns of various types using social networks. There is a huge difference between using social networks to send an electoral program to groups in an area or with a specific demographic, and using it to spread lies destined to polarize the electorate. One simple way to solve the problem is for social networks to ban electoral advertising until they are able to work out a way to prevent themselves being used to spread disinformation.
Is this possible? It would mean a huge loss of revenue. Donald Trump is the largest advertiser on Facebook, which gives an idea of the nature of his strategies. Would it be possible to force Facebook to give up that income? But, more importantly… would that solve the problem? Many of the political disinformation campaigns on social networks are not labeled as advertising campaigns, but instead take the form of coordinated inauthentic behavior, made of fake civil society groups, activists and other bogus accounts designed to simulate legitimate activity. If electoral campaigns were banned on social networks, might it not lead to an immediate increase in illegitimate activity, as a way of trying to achieve the same end through a different method?
If we do not allow — or at least, try to prevent — bogus advertising of all kinds of products or services, why should politics be a rules-free zone? And if the conventional media can’t be a rules-free zone, why should the social networks? Should we accept that the current social media model is incompatible with a healthy democracy? Does it make sense, given that social platforms claim not to be able to prevent lies and manipulation during electoral campaigns, to force them to ban all political advertisements? Should we impose limits on social media advertising and prevent political parties or candidates from using them to try to win votes? Sometimes the only way to kill the weed is to plough up the entire field. And even then, sometimes the weed comes back.