“First, do no harm,” a doctrine typically associated with the practice of medicine, is the right ethic when it comes to decisions surrounding Silicon Valley’s paid promotion technologies and their effects on elections and democracy. A desire to avoid harm — in particular, the spread of misinformation — is part of what persuaded Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, to announce that his company will no longer run political ads. And Twitter is not alone: LinkedIn, Pinterest, Microsoft and Twitch also refuse political ads, while Google accepts them in some states but not others.
Facebook is now the outlier, and it is increasingly hard to understand why it is insisting on accepting not only political advertising, but even deliberate and malicious lies if they are in the form of paid advertisements. Given how much can go wrong — and has gone wrong — the question everyone is asking is: Why does Facebook think it needs to be in this game? Naïveté is at this point the most flattering explanation.
It isn’t, as some think, just about making money, for as a revenue source, the money at stake is minor. But the money does matter, in a different way. Paying for promotion is how, on social media, some speakers gain priority over others. This creates an advantage unrelated to actual popularity. Paired with the freedom to lie, the effect is to give political lies and paid misinformation campaigns a twisted advantage over other forms of election speech (like “the news.”) Even as Facebook’s “integrity” teams try to stamp out other forms of deception, paid promotions gain access to the full power of Facebook’s tools of microtargeting, its machine learning and its unrivaled collection of private information, all to maximize the influence of blatant falsehoods. What could possibly go wrong?
If the idea of prioritizing lies over truth doesn’t sound very appealing, Facebook’s defenses of its policy are almost their own misinformation campaign. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, has suggested that Facebook sees itself as providing the “tennis court” where politicians play the game of politics. But tennis actually has strict rules; Facebook has embraced, instead, the norms of a fighting cage. More important, Clegg is hiding the more fundamental question: Who ever said Facebook needed be the tennis court in the first place?
Facebook, which for years has declared it is not a media company, is now asserting that it is a medium necessary to a fair electoral process. That’s the implication of the tennis analogy, and also of Zuckerberg’s favorite defense of his policy, that Facebook must run political advertisements, even blatant lies, to help political challengers take on incumbents.
Having personally run against a slate including an incumbent, I am sympathetic to measures that might level the playing field. But not only is there no evidence to back Facebook’s assertions, there are many other, more obvious and less dangerous ways to fight the advantages of incumbency, like the public matching of campaign donations. It is ludicrous to suggest that allowing paid political lies online is what’s really necessary to help out the little guys.
So strange is the policy, so confusing even to Facebook’s own employees, perhaps it really is nothing more than an effort to placate Facebook’s conservative critics — giving Zuckerberg space to loudly declare that he maintains a fair and balanced policy when it comes to political speech. Leave aside that this is unlikely to mollify mainstream conservatives, whose real concern is that Facebook’s filtering of hate speech will enshrine “political correctness.” It is the effort to mollify itself that should raise red flags.
What we are learning is that Facebook can, by tinkering with its rules for political ads, give itself a special, unregulated power over elections. Just that possibility gives Facebook political leverage and politicians reasons to want leverage over Facebook. And we are speaking not of the local television station, which is bad enough, but the nation’s dominant social network, creating the kind of monopoly influence over politics that the framers of the Sherman antitrust law were concerned about. By refusing to stay out, Facebook is in effect building the case for its own breakup.
It is a dangerous game, with enormous potential for corruption, which is why Dorsey and most of the rest of Silicon Valley are right to steer as far clear as they can. It may well be that Silicon Valley one day studies its role in elections and comes up with some kind of salutary town hall of the future. But false neutrality is worse than nothing. Lacking any certainty that they can do more good than harm, both Facebook and Google need to get out.
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia, a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”