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Facebook Ad Policy Threatens Democracy

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
“Democracy requires citizens see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared fact; instead, we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”
Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble
We are now less than a year away from the presidential election of 2020. That it will be contentious and fraught with partisan anger is a given. That we will be inundated with misleading, demeaning, and outright false political advertising an unfortunate reality.

Candidates will have their own ads for which they take responsibility; these may be on the edge of truth and civility. A larger share of the ads will come from political action committees (PACs.) These ads will make no pretense of fairness, honesty, or civility. They will deceive and villainize.

There will be the social media ads that come from bots and trolls in China, Iran, and Russia, stoking prejudices and fears to steer voters toward one candidate or another. These countries seek to either have a candidate elected that will benefit their agendas or one that will leave the United States damaged and divided.

Most newspapers and television stations have standards for truth in advertising. However, it is social media through which much of the advertising many will be influenced by will come, and that could be dangerous for democracy. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is at the heart of this threat and has washed his hands of responsibility for the falsehoods his company will spread.

Facebook does exercise editorial supervision over speech and advertising on its platform removing that which it deems to be racists, hateful, bullying, or flat out false – as long as it’s not political speech. “Misleading or deceptive ads have no place on Facebook,” Product Management Director Rob Leathern has said. No place on Facebook, unless they are political ads, Zuckerberg clarified to Congress recently.

“In the year leading up to our 2016 election, I began to see the polarization and breakdown of civil discourse, exacerbated by social media, as our biggest national security threat,” Yaël Eisenstat, a former elections integrity head at Facebook, CIA officer, and White House adviser writes.

“I didn’t think I was going to change the company by myself. But I wanted to help Facebook think through the role it plays in politics, in the United States and around the world, and the best way to ensure that it is not harming democracy,” she wrote.

It didn’t work out well for her. Six months after taking the job at Facebook she quit. It was evident to her that the tech giant put profits ahead of responsibility for the truth of the content it was spreading.

Eisenstat says the average Facebook user is going to assume that if Facebook allows it, then the information on its platform must have passed some kind of legitimacy test. The only test was whether or not the campaign, political donor, or party super PAC, paid for it.

Zuckerberg cynically says Facebook’s “responsibility” is to provide citizens insight into a candidate’s character by allowing their ads to run. It is a concept based on the “marketplace of ideas” theory that we will all be able to discern the truth if given multiple and varied sources of information.

It relies on the assumption of open-mindedness. It assumes people access multiple sources of information, seeking out points of view that might challenge their preferred sources of information. That may have been true in the days when the number of television news programs were limited, and newspapers were widely read. We know this is no longer true. People turn to partisan television shows and bury themselves in their tailored newsfeeds from Facebook and other social media.

What makes the patently false political advertising allowed by Facebook even more insidious is that it is using the minute detail it collects on each of us to specifically target messages it knows we will react to positively, or negatively. It is building complete psychological profiles of each us that allows it to detect not just political preferences, but also our moods. It can interpret when we feel down or up. It capitalizes on those swings in our emotions with specific ads that will resonate and motivate us, whether it is to buy a product, or buy into a politically false tale.

“The fact that we were taking money for political ads, and allowing campaigns and other political organizations to target users based on the vast amounts of data we had gathered, meant political ads should have an even higher bar for integrity than what people were posting in organic content,” Eisenstat argues. Not a chance that is going to happen when money is the primary motivator.

Rather Facebook facilitates the indoctrination of our attitudes and beliefs at the most rigid and base level. It kills empathy. It villainizes compromise.

Zuckerberg appeals to our civic pride by saying he is holding up rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. We aren’t fooled.

Facebook allows “crazy lies (to be) pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together,” Aaron Sorkin writes. “Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives. You and I want speech protections to make sure no one gets imprisoned or killed for saying or writing something unpopular, not to ensure that lies have unfettered access to the American electorate.”

We want advertising and speech that challenges us to think, not those that are lies, such as Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham supporting the Green New Deal, or Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren destroying evidence that climate change was a hoax.

Perception is reality for too many. What people see and hear, no matter how far from the truth, becomes their reality. Facts matter. Facts allow partisans to act as citizens. Facts allow us to put country over party. Facebook destroys facts.

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