PD Editorial: Facebook and Twitter’s faulty approach to political advertising

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Facebook and Twitter recently announced new political advertising policies. Facebook will run every political ad, even ones with falsehoods. Twitter won’t run any political ads at all. Neither is a good solution to a challenge that demands nuance.

California might not be a swing state, but that doesn’t mean residents don’t see their share of political advertising. What we lack in presidential competition, we more than make up for in local races and ballot initiatives. It’s not just television, either. Campaigns have figured out that there’s a lot of bang for their buck with targeted advertisements on social media.

With millions of dollars at stake, social media companies find themselves in a tough spot. That political campaigns play fast and loose with the truth is nothing new, but the sheer volume of outright lies pushed to so many people on social media creates an environment like none before. If companies don’t want federal regulators implementing ham-fisted policies to rein it all in, they need to do something better than Facebook and Twitter have proposed.

Facebook doesn’t care if an ad is honest, just that the campaign pays its bill. The company argues that it’s standing up for free speech. Let people say whatever they want, and the marketplace of ideas can sort it out.

The marketplace of ideas is hard-pressed to fight paid advertising, though. That goes double when ads can be targeted at specific audiences. A false ad sent only to conservatives might never even reach the people who might correct it. Misinformation spreads unchallenged, and democratic discourse is diminished.

A political activist in San Francisco has gone so far as to register for the 2022 gubernatorial race so that he can run false ads on Facebook. That hardly elevates the conversation about a difficult issue, but it does make a point.

Twitter’s solution is no better. The company won’t run any political ads. But what counts as a political ad? If President Donald Trump’s campaign can’t buy an ad touting his immigration policies, presumably an issue ad from the American Civil Liberties Union supporting allowing refugees into the country also should be off limits, right? There’s a lot of gray area and potential outrage in these politically charged times.

It would be unreasonable to expect every company to determine the truth of every political ad. There are just too many of them. Ads that affect the presidential race receive considerable attention, but it’s simply not feasible for each company to have enough knowledgeable staff to judge ads in 535 congressional races, not to mention thousands of state legislative races and hundreds of thousands of state and local elected offices from governors down to mosquito abatement district boards.

Facebook, Twitter and every other social media company should instead adopt advertising policies that strive to eliminate false ads even if they can never fully succeed. A good-faith effort that errs on the side of free speech is possible and would do far more to build credibility than the current plans.

Reputable newspapers and magazines fact check political ads and then decide whether to publish them. Social media should strive to do the same, even if it can never have the same depth of local expertise in every race.

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