Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his platform will no longer accept political advertising. Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doubled down on his insistence that not only would his company continue to accept such business, it would also not fact-check the claims of any politician, even in demonstrably false paid posts.
Zuckerberg hides behind the First Amendment, provoking Aaron Sorkin to write, in an open letter to him:
I admire your deep belief in free speech. I get a lot of use out of the First Amendment. Most important, it’s a bedrock of our democracy and it needs to be kept strong. But this can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives….
Right now, on your website, is an ad claiming that Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a billion dollars not to investigate his son. Every square inch of that is a lie and it’s under your logo. That’s not defending free speech, Mark, that’s assaulting truth.
In response, Zuckerberg tweeted a paragraph Sorkin wrote in the screenplay for “The American President”:
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say: You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
While that is a compelling argument for our First Amendment rights, Zuckerberg misses the point. No one is saying that Facebook users should be limited in what they write in their posts, nor should the company have to vet them (a likely impossible task, considering the volume of user-generated content added to the site each day).
However, this is paid advertising we’re talking about. If you owned a billboard company or a radio or television station, you’d probably want to ensure that your sponsors aren’t spreading lies and similar falsehoods about their competitors or anyone else. What Zuckerberg (and COO Sheryl Sandberg) are endorsing is their company accepting payment for promoting deception.
That hill is much tougher to defend, especially when it’s already been made apparent how easily Facebook can be manipulated by third parties and political campaigns with no ethics regarding the line between true and false. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of other media spaces — from Fox News to the majority of talk radio outlets — where the line is crossed every single day, but that goes to their entire business model. Yet at Facebook, political ads contribute less than 1% of the company’s total revenue, so Zuckerberg isn’t dependent on them for his bottom line.
Zuckerberg has proven himself to be quite stubborn on this topic, but I won’t be surprised when, in the next month or two, he puts his bogus First Amendment claims behind his obligation to Facebook’s role in our electoral process and changes the policy.
Meanwhile, I wonder how he’d react to someone paying for an advertisement that spreads spurious lies about Facebook — or Zuckerberg or Sandberg. Would they allow such a message to appear unexpurgated on the site?