Misinformation, spin, and false claims have been part of politics since America’s founding. To secure the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson infamously hired a hatchet man named James Callender to spread false rumors about John Adams wanting a war with France. The American approach to political speech has always been to promote more speech to counter such attacks, with the media tasked as the institution responsible for informing the public of the truth. But some appear ready to try a new approach.
As Facebook has been updating its policies regarding ads, it’s met with backlash focused on its refusal to ban political ads with false content. Some in the media, and many Democrats, are demanding that Facebook police the content of political ads on their platform. Facebook responded with proposals of its own — including a planned policy of labeling false posts as such and providing users with links to other sources — but that wasn’t enough for its critics. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren accused the company of “taking money to promote lies.”
News organizations have framed the story as one in which Facebook is allowing politicians to lie to voters on its platform. That narrative relies on the dubious presumption that the platform should be tasked with determining the veracity of political speech, and that has never been the way we have treated political ads. In fact, some of the people complaining about Facebook’s treatment of political ads work for networks such as ABC, NBC, and CBS, which often run political ads that can be considered false or misleading. Of course, they don’t really have a choice: The FCC has interpreted the Federal Communications Act to mean that stations cannot generally reject political ads because they believe them to be false.
So why the outrage over Facebook’s applying the same standards that those television networks do?
First, right-leaning news sources have been very successful at spreading their message on Facebook. Outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Wire regularly place among the most shared news outlets on Facebook.
Second, many Democrats (and their allies in the media) view the Facebook kerfuffle as an opportunity to outsource censorship of their political opponents to a private company. That became rather obvious during the testimony of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing this week. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) used her time to badger him, insisting that Facebook was choosing to allow politicians to use their platform to spread falsehoods. She also demanded to know what Zuckerberg said to allegedly “far-right figures” at private dinners, using her platform as a member of Congress to shame him for associating with people she disagrees with politically. Some of the people whom the congresswoman attempted to portray as beyond the pale include mainstream conservative media figures such as Townhall’s political editor Guy Benson, former Washington Free Beacon editor Matt Continetti, and CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham. The exchange was telling. The real source for the pushback against Zuckerberg on the left is the desire to force online platforms such Facebook to censor their political opponents.
It is worth noting that those attempting to cajole Facebook to censor political speech do not want these same standards applied to themselves. After all, Ocasio-Cortez is the same congresswoman who, when confronted with several examples of her false statements, famously asserted that being “morally right” was more important than being “factually accurate.” Mainstream-media fact-checkers have noted her falsehoods on numerous occasions. Yet, when it comes to these claims, there’s been silence among the members of the media outraged over Facebook’s current approach.
In keeping with the American tradition, Facebook is taking the right approach by providing users with more speech instead of trying to police speech it does not believe is accurate. More speech is always the answer to bad speech. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or her media allies will be hard to convince of that bedrock proposition, because it forces them to debate people they disagree with. One could be forgiven for thinking that all they really want to do is silence their political opponents.