At the center of the exchange was a tussle between Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been pushing for the break-up of tech giants like Facebook and Google, and Sen. Kamala Harris, who pointedly asked whether Warren would join her in demanding that Twitter suspend President Donald Trump’s account on the platform.
This debate moment set the stage for what will doubtless be an election-long spat over what form regulations against internet companies should take.
Over the past few days, this decree has pushed US political advertising into something like the Wild West: President Donald Trump, who will likely face the Democratic candidate in next year’s general election, has already taken the opportunity to spread political lies with no accountability.
A frightening new world of political communication
The same capabilities by which political campaigns sliced up audience segments in 2016 via Facebook’s advertisements will continue to exist in 2020. The difference will be that this time, the lies can be distributed by agents of the Trump campaign, instead of shell accounts operated by the Russian government and others.
Facebook’s derogation of fact-checking will thus only lend greater credibility to coordinated disinformation operations — as in the case of the recent Trump campaign ad.
Warren’s mockery of the ad — and of the underlying policy that allowed its dissemination — helps illuminate how Facebook’s new policy will have grave implications for our political future. Facebook’s decision not to take down the Trump ad amounts to knowingly enabling the insidious political manipulation of American voters.
Facebook’s power and “free expression”
It is disconcerting to think that by fiat, Facebook can deem a political ad to be dishonest because it contains fake buttons (which can deceive the viewer into clicking on a survey button when in fact there is no interactive feature in the ad), but the company will refuse to take action against ads containing widely-debunked political lies, even during an American presidential election.
This perilous inconsistency in Facebook’s policy decisions is a sign that its corporate power has grown too great. Concern for the public interest and the health of our democracy should compel us to action. And the only entity that has the power to do anything to improve the situation for the American people is Congress.
Behind what the company claims to be a commitment to free speech lies a commercial convenience.
Regulatory policy is the way forward
If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.
Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.