Computers

Facebook vs Twitter: The battle over free speech and political advertising

Facebook vs Twitter: The battl...
Does protecting free speech trump all other considerations, or are modern targeted ad algorithms so influential that political advertising needs more oversight?
Does protecting free speech trump all other considerations, or are modern targeted ad algorithms so influential that political advertising needs more oversight?
View 1 Image
Does protecting free speech trump all other considerations, or are modern targeted ad algorithms so influential that political advertising needs more oversight?
1/1
Does protecting free speech trump all other considerations, or are modern targeted ad algorithms so influential that political advertising needs more oversight?

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.

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.”

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.

9 comments
FB36
IMHO, freedom of speech/expression should/must never be absolute (to allow bad/harmful content & bullying/harassment/exploitation/manipulation etc)!!! But of course, there are always some grey areas, like political advertising/speech etc., which maybe up to each company/website/media outlet to decide/choose!
paul314
I wonder about the impact of twitter's ban on explicitly purchased ads when it's still possible to buy armies of bots to like and retweet a political message and send it trending. "Free" speech can be purchased in bulk if you have the right contacts.
christopher
By LAW, the purpose of a corporation is to make profit for shareholders. If facebook turns away money, it is violating the purpose for which it exists.
Expanded Viewpoint
WHY is this being debated at all? We need to go in and rectify the HUGE error made by the Founding Fathers, which was the setting up of an easily corrupted political process to fill government jobs!! No government job from dog catcher all the way down to POTUS should ever be awarded to anyone, except through a luck of the draw lottery system, well AFTER one has been vetted for the job by I.Q. testing, morality and ethical testing and ability to show that they can actually perform the duties of the job being sought. And no government job should ever last for more than 5 years, and no pensions or perks after leaving office and any proven malfeasance in a government job should result in 20 years hard labor MINIMUM! You can't do the time? Then don't do the crime! Before I got hired on as a mechanic for the power company SoCalEdison, I first went through a battery of seven different tests to show that I was fully qualified to be one of their mechanics! They tested me for general mechanical knowledge as well as my ability to spot inconsistencies in logic and perform some mental gymnastics in problem solving before turning me loose on equipment that not only costs many thousands of dollars to purchase, but a man's life depends upon when working on 220KV power lines too! They don't want no dummies in that there job!!! Why should we have men and women in government jobs, who are basically career criminals? That makes no sense at all!
DaveWesely
Perhaps we need to step back and think about how broadcast media is different than regular communication. Broadcasting is one way communication. There is no feedback loop other than loss of audience. It is akin to giving a speech on a soapbox in the town square and requiring everyone within earshot to have their mouth taped shut. So perhaps we need to figure out how to hold broadcasters accountable to the truth. Instead of restricting what can be broadcast, we should figure out how to broadcast a counterpoint to misinformation. When a broadcaster puts something out on the air or the internet, it should be required to broadcast feedback in the same way the original information was broadcast, and in a timely manner. And that feedback should not be determined by the broadcaster. As for political advertising, if a political group pays to spread misinformation, then perhaps they should have to pay for the correction!
T N Args
IMO Warren's 'test case' was much too weak and self-effacing. Try something like "Zukerberg takes back-handers from Trump to endorse illegal fake news campaigning against political opponents on Facebook." See how that rides.
lucius
Mark Zuckerberg's reasoning is flawed. He is using a misinterpretation of the First Amendment to justify his desire to accumulate as much money as possible from the purchase of political ads on Facebook. The First Amendment protects Americans' right to express themselves without being censored by the government. The First Amendment does NOT mean that Facebook must accept all political advertising. As a private company, Facebook is free to make its own rules about the content that appears on their site. If Facebook wants to run political ads that make totally false claims, here is the solution: 1. Make all political ads that appear on Facebook free. Stop profiting off the sale of these ads. 2. Allow balanced representation of opposing views. When political ads from one party appear on Facebook, there should be an equal number of ads from opposing parties. Failing this, I can't agree with Zuckerberg's self-justifications. Basically, his policy amounts to collecting cash from the highest paying liars, and it has nothing to do with "free speech". Instead, it's just speech for a FEE.
Expanded Viewpoint
Christopher, The FIRST duty of any corporation (an artificially created entity), is to serve the good of society. Why should any governing body issue articles of incorporation to a group that either has the goal of harming people, or through its gross negligence, will harm people? The second thing that a corporation must do, is turn as much profits as possible to pay the State in recompense for its creating the corporation in the first place. Nobody builds a sandwich or a car, without the intended goal of serving a need. Corporations do not enjoy any Fourth or Fifth Amendment Rights due to their being extensions of the governmental body that creates them. First Amendment rights are for men and women ONLY! No dead thing (corporation) can think or speak on its own. Only living men and women can do that. Capice?
Aross
Today, those that can, do. Those that can't do, teach. Those that can't teach, go in to politics or run corporations. Basically the wrong people are running the world because everything they do is to increase their power and wealth, not for the benefit of the majority. The problem is that most of us keep electing those that are most corrupt because the bad boy/girl image is too appealing to most.