Facebook vs Twitter: The battle over free speech and political advertising
The fundamental principles of free speech have been debated for millennia. In today’s divisive political environment both sides of the spectrum can generally agree that free speech is a positive thing. But are there limits to free speech, particularly in political advertising? Are politicians exempt from fact-checking or should social media platforms better police the spread of political misinformation? Is the easiest solution to simply ban political advertising altogether?
No fake news ... unless it comes from a politician
Over the past few months Facebook has been under fire for its policies surrounding truth in political advertising. The latest chapter kicked off when the Trump 2020 campaign began to spread a 30-second ad in late September. The ad explicitly accused Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of corruption in regards to his son’s activities in Ukraine during the Obama administration.
Biden swiftly came out against the ad, claiming there was no evidence to support the allegations. CNN also stated it would not be playing the ad as it, “makes assertions that have been proven demonstrably false by various news outlets.”
Facebook, on the other hand, decided to make a strident stand for what it claimed was free speech. It explicitly refused to remove the political ad from its platform, or limit its paid spread. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global elections policy, claimed the platform does not fact-check ads or statements delivered by politicians.
“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Harbath said in a statement at the time.
A few days later, US Democrat presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren set out to demonstrate how potentially problematic this position could be by posting an intentionally false ad on Facebook. The sponsored post erroneously suggested Mark Zuckerberg has endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.
Mark Zuckerberg's free speech manifesto
On October 17th Mark Zuckerberg struck back at his political critics, delivering an expansive speech at Georgetown University. Zuckerberg’s speech amounted to a manifesto on free speech, presenting a philosophical argument to explain Facebook’s current policies.
“We don’t fact-check political ads,” Zuckerberg announced in the speech. “We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.”
Zuckerberg believes tech companies should not be the arbiters of what is or isn’t credible, and he ultimately advocates for a hands-off approach to political advertisements. He suggests the benefits of absolute free expression outweigh any potential damage that expression could cause.
“Even if we wanted to ban political ads, it’s not clear where we’d draw the line,” Zuckerberg said. “There are many more ads about issues than there are directly about elections. Would we ban all ads about healthcare or immigration or women’s empowerment? If we banned candidates’ ads but not these, would that really make sense to give everyone else a voice in political debates except the candidates themselves? There are issues any way you cut this, and when it’s not absolutely clear what to do, I believe we should err on the side of greater expression.”
Facebook obviously doesn’t take a completely absolute stance on free speech. The platform does police, and remove, everything from pornography to extreme hate speech, so there clearly is a line to be drawn over what is and isn’t acceptable. However, Zuckerberg’s manifesto does explicitly state that political speech will specifically be treated with a greater hands-off approach than other content on the platform, even when it constitutes paid advertising.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor from the University of Virginia, took aim at Zuckerberg’s philosophical position on free speech calling it “unsophisticated”, “incoherent” and akin to, “a weak undergraduate essay that would earn at most a B- from any university professor.”
Perhaps more pertinently though, Vaidhyanathan succinctly pointed out how Zuckerberg’s position seems to ignore how modern digital technology can dangerously amplify the spread of misinformation.
“For being such a key player in the young 21st century, Zuckerberg embraces an outdated, 19th-century view of speech,” writes Vaidhyanathan. “For him there is actually something like a marketplace of ideas through which the best ideas prevail once we encounter evidence and argument. The problem is, Facebook undermines any attempt to sustain such a practice.”
Twitter and the "public interest exemption"
Twitter has also been facing similar issues recently, with Kamala Harris, another US Democrat presidential candidate, calling for the platform to ban Donald Trump citing several tweets that allegedly violate the company’s policies regarding abusive behavior and harassment. Twitter responded by claiming Trump has not explicitly violated any of the platform’s policies but it also reiterated a new policy announced back in June.
That policy stated a new “public interest exception”, essentially allowing certain tweets to remain online even if they do violate platform policy. The exception is currently limited to elected or government officials and will put contentious tweets behind a notice that mentions the rule violation but still allows people to view the comment. The “public interest exception” has not been deployed by Twitter for any tweet so far.
“Twitter generally removes Tweets that violate our rules,” the company stated. “However, we recognize that sometimes it may be in the public interest to allow people to view Tweets that would otherwise be taken down. We consider content to be in the public interest if it directly contributes to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern.”
For a time it seemed Twitter was moving along the same philosophical pathway as Facebook. Political speech was allowed more leeway than other content based on fundamental notions of free speech. But an unexpected announcement from CEO Jack Dorsey on October 31st surprised many.
Twitter was banning all paid political advertisements.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…🧵— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack) October 30, 2019
The difference between free speech and paid speech
Dorsey’s statement came as a compelling ideological counterpoint to Zuckerberg’s position, pointing out that the issue is not one of free speech but actually about paying for reach. Dorsey suggests political advertising is primarily about money being used to enhance the spread of certain messages, and modern targeting technology allows for powerful and influential reach.
“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,” Dorsey writes. “All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”
The implication of Dorsey’s position is that banning all political advertisements is not a suppression of free speech, after all, politicians are still free to post whatever they feel on the platform. But instead, banning the paid spread of political messaging allows the platform to avoid any potential issues it would face in trying to police the distribution of misinformation.
“This isn’t about free expression” Dorsey concludes. “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
We’re well aware we‘re a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem. Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow.— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack) October 30, 2019
Banning political advertising is surely an easier economic decision for Twitter than it would be for Facebook. It has been reported Twitter’s revenue from political advertising is tiny, while Facebook is much, much more active in the political ad ecosystem. So it is certainly an easy position for Dorsey to take, leaving the platform with the moral high ground, despite its prior “public interest exemption” policy coming across as an evasive way to allow politicians to make statements others would be generally banned for making.
Zuckerberg's next move?
Pressure is growing on Facebook and Zuckerberg’s free speech policy. A recent letter obtained by the New York Times revealed a large number of Facebook employees are pushing Zuckerberg to crack down on misinformation in political advertising. The internal letter, co-signed by over 250 employees, calls for a number of new processes to be implemented in order to stop the platform being weaponized to spread misinformation.
“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing ... Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for,” the letter states.
The measures called for in the letter include third-party fact-checking on political ads and pre-election silent periods to limit the spread of misinformation. The letter claims Zuckerberg’s refusal to combat misinformation spread by politicians actively undermines all the work being done internally to stop election tampering and signals a blatant interest in profiting from the spread of lies.
How this will all ultimately play out is anyone’s guess. Will Zuckerberg fold to internal pressure and introduce more caveats to Facebook’s political advertising policies, or will he maintain his absolute faith in his principles of free speech? Only time will tell.