Economy & Business

Don’t Make Facebook the Ministry of Truth

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic party’s state convention in Manchester, September 7, 2019. (Gretchen Ertl/Reuters)
Elizabeth Warren wants the social-media giant to certify the truth and falsity of the political ads it runs. She should think the issue through more carefully.

I’m not convinced that Elizabeth Warren is thinking clearly when she says she opposes overweening corporate power, and in particular Facebook’s overweening corporate power:

What would Warren have Facebook do? She would have it vet and reject ads for truth:

Warren’s complaint appears as one respectable elite liberal appealing to the elite liberal executives and managers inside Facebook. The message? You need to play for your own team here, even if it costs you something.

The interesting question is how the standard Warren is demanding of Facebook would play out in real life. It might very well work against the goal she desires. Unscrupulous campaigns could still flood social-media sites such as Facebook with ads, daring them to take the political risk of cracking down. Worse, her opponents’ ads could effectively use Facebook’s fact-checking as a kind of character witness for their attacks. How would it look for her if Facebook, the progressive behemoth with apparently immense sway over our elections, was seen to be endorsing and certifying Donald Trump’s attacks on her?

Warren says that “Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once through negligence.” This is not knowably true, though liberals and progressives have done their best to claim otherwise since Trump’s election. In 2008 and 2012, Democrats were thrilled that Barack Obama was able to use Facebook very effectively, often exploiting the same techniques they deplored and viewed as conspiratorial when used on a smaller scale by groups aligned with the right. A decade ago, progressives fantasized about social-media-powered revolutions of the young across the world. In the years since, the median age of a Facebook user has gone up dramatically and now resembles the median age of a Donald Trump voter. Trump won the election, and we know that voters and his campaign interacted across Facebook during the campaign that preceded it. But it is still difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much Facebook caused his election to happen and how much it simply reflected his ascent.

One thing that’s certain is that the resulting controversy has not helped either our politics or Facebook’s public image (and thus its bottom line). Warren’s standard would have the potential to make future such controversies even more intense. Facebook’s certification of political ads would involve the company in more controversial political judgments and events, not fewer. To progressives who believe history’s arc bends in their direction by right, it would make Facebook appear more guilty when democracy threw up a surprise result. And it would arguably make the platform more powerful and desirable as a political ad space, which is an odd goal for an avowed opponent of corporate power to pursue.

Facebook’s team has responded to Warren’s attacks on Twitter, arguing that its current standard is analogous to FEC guidelines, which discourage broadcasters from censoring ads and encourage voters to decide. That is, in rough terms, the right approach. A democratic people should not want gigantic corporations that have Facebook’s insidious and omnipresent reach certifying the truth and falsity of political claims. If we want democratic citizens to be skeptical of both corporate and political claims, then those claims should continue to travel under the names of “spin” and “boob bait” and we should stop pretending that Mark Zuckerberg can assemble a reliable truth squad.

Adjudicating campaign claims in a democratic system should be messy, decentralized, and oppositional. It shouldn’t be a duty entrusted to the corporations that have done the most to addict us to their products and capture our errant attention.

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