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 Mr. 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 on a ticket against 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 (@superwuster) 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.”
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