In case it’s not obvious, there are two camps in the social-media political-advertising debate: Facebook, and everyone else.
No two platforms are approaching this issue exactly the same way, but most have taken a step back: Twitter banned all political ads and started fact-checking, Snapchat stopped promoting Trump’s account, Twitch completely suspended Trump’s account, and Reddit shut down r/The_Donald. Meanwhile, Zuck has been pretty stubborn about doing nothing, on the grounds that (1) “Facebook isn’t an arbiter of truth” and (2) something something Free Speech.
It’s not a great look for Facebook, especially given the gravity of the situation. Having said that:
- Earlier this month, The New York Times reported (from intel provided by anonymous Facebook insiders) that Facebook is now considering a ban on political ads—though that internal debate is definitely not over.
- Facebook’s internal debate does help illuminate why political advertising isn’t a black-and-white topic. That’s why we’re outlining the arguments for both sides today.
Necessary Starting Point: It’s not really about the money. Yes, political advertising involves large sums of money—but in absolute terms, not relative terms. Since 2018, the Trump and Biden campaigns have spent a combined $80M on Facebook ads. Is that a lot of money? Yes. But is that a lot of money to Facebook? No. It’s barely a drop in the bucket; Facebook generated $70B of advertising revenue in 2019. So we kinda do believe Zuck when he says that Facebook’s decisions aren’t about the money. The math supports that.
The central question of Facebook’s internal debate: Does banning political ads help or harm the goal of ‘giving users a voice’?
Arguments for ‘banning political ads HELPS giving users a voice‘:
(A) Paid speech isn’t free speech. Rather, paid amplification creates a hierarchy of speech, where the highest bidder can steer what people see and hear (regardless of merit). This isn’t usually a problem for traditional business advertising if you let it play out—but it’s definitely a problem for national politics if you let it play out.
(B) To the extent that political ads have often asserted falsehoods AKA misinformation — in many cases knowingly — an unregulated Facebook ad platform is also a pay-for-propaganda platform. Banning political ads eliminates (most of) this problem without affecting non-political advertising.
(C) One major consequence of widespread misinformation is voter disenfranchisement, which is inherently harmful to the democratic republic which gives users a voice in the first place (because a healthy republic, by definition, requires a healthy representative voter base). The term “voter disenfranchisement” is, of course, the buzzword meaning “all the ways you can threaten, discourage, or disable a person’s right to vote, whether directly or indirectly.” Hate speech, violence, or anything which encourages either one definitely counts — and shouldn’t be sheltered as ‘free speech’.
Arguments for ‘banning political ads HARMS giving users a voice’:
(A) In many places, paid amplification could make the electoral process fairer. This is especially plausible when you think at smaller scales (e.g. local and midterm elections). Imagine a young, underfunded, underdog, down-ballot candidate competing against an older and wealthier incumbent; Facebook ads could at least give the “little guy” a chance to compete on merit (i.e. “a voice”), which is what American politics should be all about.
(B) A ban on political ads is ultimately a blunt instrument which cannot, by itself, solve a widespread misinformation problem. This argument doesn’t quite affirm that banning political ads is harmful per se, but it does offer a valid observation: it’s not like this whole problem goes away if you ban political ads. Most misinformation spreads in closed groups anyway. More broadly, taking into account arguments like the paragraph above: where’s the line here? What separates a “legitimate” use of political ads from an “illegitimate” one?
(C) When you limit political advertising to (what CLIKKers might call) organic reach, banning paid political ads is just trading one problem (a cash-dumping contest) for another problem (a popularity contest). And while the odds favor it, you can’t be sure that the latter is a smaller problem—especially when hackers and shady software designers now play a visible role, as we learned after 2016.
theCLIKK’s Take: In policy-debate terms, Zuck is leaning upon a principle called presumption, whose essence is “when doing Nothing and doing Something have the same odds of success, Nothing is automatically better because we’re already there.” But we’re all starting to see (again and again) where you can land when you do Nothing about a visible and serious problem.