Elizabeth Warren's Feud With Facebook Over 'False' Ads Just Highlights The Impossibility Of Content Moderation At Scale
from the damned-if-you-do dept
You may have heard over the past few days about a bit of a feud between Presidential candidates — mainly Elizabeth Warren — and Facebook about how the company handles political ads with false information. It began a week or so ago when the Trump campaign started running a bunch of Facebook ads around impeachment, some of which were blatantly false, based on totally debunked claims. Facebook, however, just recently clarified its policy, noting that while it will block ads that its partner fact-checkers have determined to be untrue, that does not apply directly to political candidate ads themselves:
We rely on third-party fact-checkers to help reduce the spread of false news and other types of viral misinformation, like memes or manipulated photos and videos. We don?t believe, however, that it?s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician?s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny. That?s why Facebook exempts politicians from our third-party fact-checking program. We have had this policy on the books for over a year now, posted publicly on our site under our eligibility guidelines. This means that we will not send organic content or ads from politicians to our third-party fact-checking partners for review.
In response to this, Warren decided to hit back by deliberately posting a “false” ad to call out Facebook’s policy (in this case, her ad declared that “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.” The ad then calls out Facebook’s policy and attacks the company for its stance. Here’s how it read:
Breaking News: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.
You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, “how could this possibly be true?”
Well, it’s not. (Sorry.) But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.
If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it. But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks.
Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once. Now, they’re deliberately allowing a candidate to intentionally lie to the American people. It’s time to hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable—add your name if you agree.
Except… it turns out that the latter part of Warren’s “fake news ad” — the part which she presents as truthful — is actually false as well. As Facebook itself noted in a tweet (yes, in a tweet, from Facebook) directed at Warren, Trump is airing TV commercials with the same debunked claims in them on TV stations, and it’s one of the most viewed ads:
@ewarren looks like broadcast stations across the country have aired this ad nearly 1,000 times, as required by law. FCC doesn?t want broadcast companies censoring candidates? speech. We agree it?s better to let voters?not companies?decide. #FCC #candidateuse https://t.co/WlWePjh1vZ
— Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) October 12, 2019
In other words, the central claim from Warren’s campaign — that other providers, such as TV stations, would not allow such blatant lies in ads — is pretty clearly untrue. And while some are arguing that Facebook pointing this out “backfired spectacularly”, it didn’t. It is true that Warren is now claiming that Facebook’s argument supports her point, but I don’t see that at all.
If anything, it shows the damned if you do/damned if you don’t nature of content moderation.
Let’s take a second to remember that it was just a few months ago that Warren got really angry at Facebook for temporarily blocking one of her ads. And that time Warren responded by arguing that Facebook should not be able to “shut down a debate” over a political topic. And, yet, in this case, when they won’t shut down Trump’s posts, suddenly she’s mad about that too?
As Julian Sanchez rightly points out, no matter which way Facebook goes, it’s going to get yelled at.
Does anyone seriously doubt that if Facebook did set itself up as arbiter of permissibly accurate political speech, Warren would be citing it as an example of dangerously anti-democratic corporate power the first time they made a call the ?wrong? way? https://t.co/gPiGiQoBoI
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) October 13, 2019
And this is the point that lots of us have been trying to make regarding Facebook and content moderation. If you’re screaming about all the wrong choices you think it makes to leave stuff up, recognize that you’re also going to pretty pissed off when the company also decides to take stuff down that you think should be left up.
Now, there is a consistent way to interpret Warren’s position — which is that in either case, Facebook is “too big” because (as she suggested earlier this year) it can “shut down” the debate on this topic. Except, that’s also pretty obviously bullshit, because much of this debate actually happened… on Twitter. And also across lots and lots of media sites.
There are good reasons to be worried about Facebook’s market position. There are good reasons to be concerned about the amount of lies that get flung around by political campaigns. But this whole debate over lies in ads is not a Facebook problem. If you want to get at the fact that politicians will lie, well, then you’re going to need to take that up with the 1st Amendment. Blaming Facebook for taking the reasonable stance that it doesn’t want to be the one directly judging whether or not a politician is being truthful is silly. If it had to review every single political ad for truthfulness, I doubt Elizabeth Warren would be very happy about it either. Hell, part of the problem is that “truth” is not an exact standard either. Some things are misleading, but “technically” true. Some things could count as “little white lies.” Some could be blatant falsehoods. But where anything falls is often a matter of opinion, and Warren should actually be happy that Facebook is refraining from making a judgment call on the truthiness of political ads.