News Analysis by Katie Bergen and Ella Carcamo
While ordinary users of social media face a range of consequences if they post unverified data onto a social media site, political officials are able to evade any punishment from posting political ads that contains false claims. Politicians use this these ads to maximize publicity to persuade the audience to vote for them. However, this can make unaware readers vulnerable to political disinformation.
The article, “A Facebook policy lets politicians lie in ads, leaving Democrats fearing what Trump will do”, examines a Trump campaign ad that Joe Biden asked Facebook to remove because it contained claims relating to Biden’s role in withholding $1 billion in aid to Ukraine that have been repeatedly labeled as falsehoods by fact-checkers. Facebook refused to take down the ad because the post was not violating its policies regarding direct speech by politicians. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued that the public should decide what is credible, not social media companies. “When it’s not absolutely clear what to do, we should err on the side of free expression,” Zuckerberg said. That means that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will not restrict political speech and refuse to accept responsibility for how political officials use their platforms. So whenever a politician posts an ad, these sites will not send it to third party fact-checkers, which means that readers will be the ones to scrutinize that information–or not.
Some of Facebook’s employees are alarmed about this practice and have come out against it in a letter addressed to Zuckerberg, which states:
“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing. Misinformation affects us all. Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”
The employees recommended holding political ads to the same standard when it comes to veracity as other ads and making them easier to distinguish from other content.
Takeaway: As long as this policy is in place, be your own watchdog. These rules on political ads on Facebook pose a real threat to news consumers–and voters. Political speech that contains false information is not covered by Facebook’s fact-checking system, which means that government officials can and already are posting their own political propaganda that includes unsubstantiated or outright false claims. Given that many people use these social media platforms for news, it’s important for the public to be diligent about verifying the claims they encounter. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of news consumers to become more proactive and make sure they realize political ads may not equal political truth.