In a world where elections in democratic countries can — and are — being influenced by fake news, it’s important for news organizations and social media sites to make sure political ads don’t make false claims. That’s especially true during election campaigns.
So it’s alarming that Facebook is backing away from a policy of banning false claims in advertising, including giving a specific exemption for political ads, just a couple of weeks before Canada’s Oct. 21 election.
Why? A Facebook spokesman says “we don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates.”
Wrong answer. It’s not a matter of refereeing political debates. But it is appropriate for a media company to pay special attention to the political advertising it runs. It’s a requirement for any news organization that wants to be trusted by readers, indeed part of its duty to uphold principles of democratic debate.
Further, if newspapers, which have lost most of their online advertising revenue to the likes of Google and Facebook, can pour considerable resources into fact-checking what they publish, then surely Facebook itself can do at least as much.
Facebook has built itself into a $71-billion company on the backs of the so-called legacy media organizations that are doing the bulk of the work on responsible reporting and fact-checking. Indeed, between 2008 and 2018 alone, 250 Canadian media outlets closed as advertising dollars migrated onto Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest. And in the United States, a fifth of all newspapers have been shuttered since 2004.
But despite their financial straits, legacy news organizations continue to spend on fact-checking.
And for good reason. If anyone wants to know how potentially dangerous Facebook’s new policy is, they need simply look south of the border. On Oct. 3 CNN announced it would not run two Trump campaign ads because they make “demonstrably false” claims while discussing impeachment and promoting unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against former vice-president Joe Biden.
One 30-second ad that has already run on YouTube, owned by Google, claims Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion to fire a prosecutor looking into “his son’s company.”
Ads like that will presumably now be allowed on Facebook. That’s dangerous; indeed, it will allow politicians to lie with impunity. Facebook’s nonchalant attitude about how its platform is used is nothing new.
A study by researchers at Ohio State University found fake news played a role in depressing support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Much of that fake news ran on Facebook, the largest social media site in the world with 2.41 billion users worldwide.
Did Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg feel moved by that and other studies to make sure his company was not responsible for interference in future elections or other democratic votes, such as referendums?
Absolutely not. In May, for example, Facebook refused to take down a doctored video that portrayed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her words, making her appear addled or drunk.
At the same time Zuckerberg refused to appear before a panel of international politicians meeting to discuss big data, privacy and democracy in Ottawa, something Conservative MP Bob Zimmer was right to call “abhorrent.”
Whether it’s Canada’s election campaign, a Brexit referendum or the next U.S. election, Facebook must scrutinize its articles and advertisements as much as any respected news organization would. There is too much at stake for it to just take the money and run.
An editorial from the Toronto Star