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Facebook Can Fight Lies in Political Ads

Cass R. Sunstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- All over the world, truth is in trouble. What are we going to do about that?

Unfortunately, Facebook’s new policy on political advertisements is a step in the wrong direction.(1) By exempting “politicians” from its third-party fact-checking program, designed to reduce the spread of lies and falsehoods in ads, the company is essentially throwing up its hands. With some urgency, it should be seeking new ways to reduce the risk that lies and falsehoods will undermine the democratic process.

To its credit, Facebook generally prohibits ads “that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers.” If you run an ad falsely claiming that your new medicine cures cancer, the company will take it down, at least if the claim has been independently debunked. The policy also extends to “misinformation about vaccines as identified and verified by global health organizations such as the World Health Organization.”

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, defended the company’s exemption for politicians, arguing that their speech belongs in an altogether different category and that therefore their ads will not be reviewed for veracity. If a candidate for public office falsely says that his opponent served time for attempted murder, is a drug addict, participated in terrorist activities, or tried to bribe foreign officials – apparently Facebook will do nothing.

Clegg explained: “We are champions of free speech and defend it in the face of attempts to restrict it. Censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are about.”

At the same time, he announced an exception to the exemption for politicians: “previously debunked content.” If President Donald Trump or Senator Bernie Sanders shares content that has been debunked by fact-checkers in the past, that content will not be allowed in advertisements. But if it’s a new falsehood, it will be allowed.

In short, Facebook does “not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.”

But why, exactly?

CNN announced last week that it would not run a Donald Trump 2020 campaign ad that would include a false claim against former Vice President Joe Biden. Any broadcaster, and any social-media platform, is legally entitled to refuse to run ads that contain palpable lies.

As a matter of constitutional law, the First Amendment does not apply to private institutions. If CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Facebook or YouTube refuses to run political ads spreading false claims, the Constitution would not stand in the way.

The best argument on Facebook’s behalf would point to the exceptional difficulty of adjudicating truth or falsity. It can be hard to distinguish between fact (“my opponent served a jail sentence”) and opinion (“my opponent belongs in jail”).

In some cases, factual errors will be both clear and demonstrable. Taken in isolation, they should not be allowed. But if Facebook got in the business of taking down clear and demonstrable errors in political ads, you can see why it might soon find itself regretting it.

Politicians of all kinds would soon accuse their opponents of lying about them – and ask Facebook to remove their ads. The company’s decisions would predictably be subject to claims of political bias. Whether those charges were opportunistic or sincere, Facebook might well conclude that it makes more sense to adopt a general rule: allow a free-for-all. 

Fair enough. But with the help of social-media platforms, lies and misinformation are instantly spreading to countless people. With algorithms and personalization, those who spread falsehoods are increasingly able to reach receptive audiences and tailor their messages to them. The problem is only going to get worse.

That threatens to create a political order in which ordinary citizens cannot know what is true, and in which they end up believing those who are best at fooling them, or who have the most power. (From George Orwell’s “1984”: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”)

To address that danger, it is not enough for Facebook to rely on abstractions about the importance of freedom of speech.

Instead, it might, for example, consider enlisting the law of defamation, and treat clearly defamatory statements, directed at one politician against another, as beyond the pale. It might build on its own practice in creating an independent oversight board, giving such a body a degree of authority to take down demonstrable falsehoods. Following the practice in some nations, it might refuse to air political ads in the period immediately preceding an election.

It is easy to understand Facebook’s reluctance to operate as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth. But 1984 is one thing; 2019 is another. Against their wishes, Facebook and other social-media platforms are contributing to a situation that diminishes the power of truth in democratic debate every day. That endangers democracy itself. The question remains: What are we going to do about it?

(1) Disclosure: I have served as an occasional adviser to Facebook, though not with respect to the issue discussed in this column.

To contact the author of this story: Cass R. Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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