ACCORDING TO ONE of the great myths of American politics, George Washington could not tell a lie. No politician since has felt such compunction. Slandering opponents has been part of the political playbook since at least the 1800 election, when John Adams’ campaign accused Thomas Jefferson of being “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Given this, last month’s controversy over Facebook’s refusal to take down a Donald Trump ad slandering Joe Biden might seem strange. In response, Elizabeth Warren published an (untrue) ad on Facebook suggesting that Mr Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, had endorsed Mr Trump. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic representative from New York, joined in the trolling, asking Mr Zuckerberg whether she would be permitted to run ads saying that Republican candidates had voted for the Green New Deal. Mr Zuckerberg went on the defensive, presenting Facebook as a champion of freedom of expression.
Both sides have engaged in overblown rhetoric and muddled thinking. This is a problem, given the importance of digital advertising in modern politics. Advertising Analytics, a political advertising research firm, says that digital ads account for 57.5% of tracked ads by presidential candidates so far this cycle, with over half of that going to Facebook.
No advertising platform is required to assess the truthfulness of political ads. Some, including local TV, are even required to run campaign ads uncensored by the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Politifact, an independent fact-checking website, deemed Ms Warren’s claim that “most networks” would refuse to air an ad by Mr Trump that contained a lie “mostly false”. Rather than acting exceptionally, Facebook is in step with current practice.
Lying in ordinary speech is not criminal. In commercial advertising it is. It is fine to claim that one’s beans are magical, but using such claims to sell them will attract the ire of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Political adverts are exempt from such truth-in-advertising requirements. The FTC does not regulate political adverts because the current understanding of the first amendment protects political speech even when it is manifestly false. Some states do have laws banning falsehoods in political advertising, but several of these have been struck down by the courts.
Due to these first-amendment concerns an FTC-like entity could not be given the power to censor political ads that contain lies. It could potentially act as a fact checker, labelling ads “false” and highlighting claims that are dubious or hard to assess. This suggestion is not without problems. “I worry what happens when that government institution is captured by an administration that doesn’t care very much about the truth”, says Richard Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
Facebook’s commitment to freedom of expression is also far from absolute—it has censored speech on behalf of foreign governments. And removing problematic content unless it comes from a politician is also not in keeping with the American tradition of freedom of expression, as it grants certain speakers a licence to lie but not others. The company’s position probably has more to do with the difficulty of regulating political ads than anything else, says Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.
Facebook hosts an enormous number of ads, especially given the tendency to test variations to see which provokes the most engagement. Establishing whether an ad contain falsehoods is difficult; at scale the task is monumental. Even Twitter’s new policy of banning all political adverts does not make for easy regulation, as it is hard to determine what qualifies as “political”.
Facebook also allows campaigns to micro-target receptive groups with ads that opponents are unlikely to see and therefore cannot dispute, disarming the traditional defence against falsehood. When it comes to political advertising, legislation has failed to keep up with technology. The Honest Ads Act is a good first step. Sponsored by Ms Warren’s Democratic rival Amy Klobuchar, it would force digital political ads to reveal how they were funded, as ads on TV must. But it would not quell worries about lies in political advertising. ■