On October 28, 2019 the New York Times published a report and a copy of the letter directed to Mark Zuckerberg that a number of Facebook employees signed. The letter contained criticisms of Facebook’s recently announced policy concerning misinformation in political advertising on the social media platform. The letter was prompted by recent comments from Mr. Zuckerberg himself who said that Facebook will no longer ban advertisements with “false or misleading content” and will not “fact check” the content of political ads. Mr. Zuckerberg reasoned, “We think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.” And he also stated “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” LEARN MORE
The letter signed by a number of Facebook employees highlights the complexities of dealing with political speech from politicians and their groups (political action committees (PAC’s), and the national political party on social media platforms and in determining if the speech may be false and misleading. Mark Zuckerberg does get it right when he stated that Facebook should not be in the business of censoring politicians or in monitoring their content. People must decide for themselves the merits of the message that politicians are putting forth.
But the letter highlights a problem with political speech that pre – dates the rise of social media platforms that is not necessarily restricted to digital activities. In this article about the 2008 presidential campaign from TIME magazine Amy Sullivan charts the history of false and misleading statements from election candidates and shows that the United States has a long history of allowing falsehoods from candidates in the political arena. While false and misleading advertising can be regulated despite First Amendment Free Speech concerns, political advertising is categorized separately as political speech and that allows uncensored, misleading and false information to reach the public. The rationale for not censoring or regulating political speech is that it permits people to judge for themselves what appeals to them. This is a highly contentious position that has been made all the more difficult with social media platforms and the speed with which messages can spread, the ability to target specific groups and the amount of money being spent on political ads.
What needs to change here is not simply adding new rules for political advertisements on social media platforms alone but adding new rules and regulations that will apply to all kinds of media – new mediums such as social media and podcasts as well as old medium such as newspapers, television and radio. The proposals outlined in the Facebook letter – clear labels on what is political advertising, restrictions on ad targeting and spending caps – are all good steps that will undoubtedly help promote transparency on social media platforms. But change also needs to go deeper and change the American tradition of allowing misleading campaign statements and advertising that face no repurcussions. Mark Zuckerberg in deciding to no longer ban false and misleading political advertising was likely just following the American rules concerning political speech as they have been applied to TV, newspapers and radio. And until America comes around and changes the landscape to those old mediums there is no reason for the new mediums, such as Facebook, to follow a different path. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
- First Amendment Coalition (FAC) – non – profit group dedicated to advancing free speech in civic affairs.
- Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University – non – profit group addressing free speech on social media platforms.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.
Photo by Kon Karampelas