This week, Facebook announced a series of important changes aimed at countering political disinformation on its platform in the two months leading up to the U.S. election. As the company’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg rightly observed, “This election is not going to be business as usual.” Responding to this reality, the company is taking welcome actions including taking down Russian government-sponsored sites, banning new political ads in the week before the election, strengthening responses to posts which aim to dissuade voter turnout, and countering political disinformation in the uncertain weeks after November 3rd. All of these measures reflect Facebook’s recognition of the enormity of its influence on our political process. As Zuckerberg acknowledged, “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.” Despite these laudable steps and statements, the company still refuses to do what really needs to be done to protect our democracy, namely taking down all provably false political content on its site.
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When Facebook’s fact-checkers identify false content, the company labels the information as false and demotes the post in users’ newsfeeds. Generally, they do not apply the same measures to political ads. In defending themselves against calls to do more, Zuckerberg and Facebook have wrapped themselves in a straitjacket, asserting time and again that they are not “arbiters of the truth.” They maintain they are obligated to allow deliberately and provably false information on their site in the name of free speech. This may have seemed like a reasonable talking point in the past, but it no longer rings true. First, Facebook is not bound by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects free speech, because the provision applies to governments, not private companies. And second, Facebook’s efforts to take down certain types of false posts proves their willingness to moderate some forms of harmful content.
Indeed, Facebook routinely acts as an arbiter of the truth in other contexts. To cite one recent example, the company has done a commendable job in taking down provably false information relating to COVID-19. It has labeled or removed from the platform false claims of effective treatments and bogus assertions of cures. This is the right thing to do. The decision to take down false posts from the Russian government-sponsored Internet Research Agency this week is another example. The company acted quickly and decisively, taking down Russian-sponsored fake accounts and a website the Russians created to look like a left-wing news site. This was also the right thing to do. The company justified the decision based on their prohibition on coordinated inauthentic behavior. With these interventions, Facebook has shown itself to be capable and effective in monitoring and curating what appears on its site.
However, the company still refuses to take a stand against all provably false political content across its platform. Facebook rightly points out that moderating political content online poses vexing challenges and is very different from the task faced by newspapers, magazines, and other news organizations. Indeed, reviewing the overwhelming amount of content posted on Facebook every minute to identify provably false political information would require substantial effort and incur significant additional cost. But instead of addressing these challenges head-on, Facebook is struggling to find loopholes in their self-imposed rule against being an arbiter of the truth. The company’s decision to stop all new political ads in the week before the election reflects the straitjacket in which Facebook has bound itself. In effect, the company is saying that for the next seven weeks, it will accept tens of millions of dollars for political ads that contain wild falsehoods without asking any questions. Then, in the eighth and final week, it will stop accepting any political ads in an effort to prevent political disinformation from undermining our democracy. It is safe to assume that cynical political operatives are now rushing to double their ad buys in the days before the ban goes into effect.
Instead of this half measure, Facebook should immediately decline to post deliberately false ads whenever political candidates and their supporters, whether Democrats or Republicans, seek to place them on the platform. Similarly, when people post holocaust denial content, as they still do, Facebook should take it down. And Zuckerberg should stop asserting that he allows deliberately false political content on the site because he believes in free speech. This absolutist constraint is at the root of many of the challenges they face and leaves the company with little room to maneuver effectively without contradicting itself.
In the next two months, our democracy will be tested in unprecedented ways. Facebook and the other social media sites did not create the challenges we face, or the political polarization which now roils our society. But theirs is the field on which these issues are being played out. It is up to them to do everything in their power to reject political disinformation online. Despite the challenges and costs inherent in the undertaking, removing provably false political content from their platform is the cost of doing business as a multibillion-user global social media company. Doing so is also vital to preserve our democratic discourse. The clock is ticking.