Facebook has a lot of problems. Of course, that seems more and more like an understatement every day with a new privacy scandal, regulatory investigation, fake news outbreak, data breach, or massive financial settlement reported on an almost constant basis. But of all the problems Facebook faces, how it handles the next election will be the most important, and has the greatest potential for a devastating outcome.
Ever since 2016 we've known that Facebook was ground zero for disinformation and "fake news" spread through pages and accounts run by trolls, bots, and foreign trouble-makers. But now, it's becoming clear that there is almost nothing Facebook can do about the onslaught of inflammatory, divisive, and even outright false content that is about to fill our news feeds. Or, at least there's nothing it's willing to do.
That's the impression, anyway, after The New York Times obtained a copy of Facebook's response to a request by Joe Biden's campaign that the company remove a video that it says spreads false information about the former Vice President and current Democratic candidate for President. Facebook's response basically states that the social network isn't about to be in the business of determining the veracity of political speech.
Which is fair--I mean, I'm not sure any of us are able to really determine the veracity of political speech anymore. Of course, that's precisely the problem when you think about it. Facebook's platform is a complete mess from the standpoint of "free speech."
As hard as it is, try to set aside the politics for a minute, because there's actually a much more important lesson than just this campaign season. That lesson is that when you create a platform that connects people and facilitates communities, you have a responsibility to do the right thing for your users.
According to Katie Harbath, Facebook's head of global election policy, the company's approach is "grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is."
As a principle, the company is exactly right: free speech is free speech, and Facebook is in an almost impossible position regardless of how it handles content like the ad run by the Trump campaign. Once you start imposing limits--even if they're limits we can all agree upon--it's not free speech anymore.
But can I ask a serious question? When has Facebook demonstrated that it has any principle other than whatever allows it to make the most cash as quickly as possible? Under what other situation has the company given anyone a reason to believe that it's actually doing this for free speech, and not for profit?
Because--in case it wasn't clear--these are political advertisements. This wasn't a status update or a Facebook live video stream. It was a paid political ad, meaning Facebook actually determines who in its audience is shown the ad, and makes more profit the more often that happens. As I write this, the ad has been viewed over 5 million times.
The Washington Post reported back in August that political spending on digital ads this election cycle could exceed $6 billion, and Facebook is happy to stuff as much of that in its pockets as possible. And sure, the company announced that it was tightening its rules around political ads by requiring that they disclose who has paid for the ad.
What this latest news shows is that the company isn't really as interested in who pays for an ad, or what the ads say, just as long as they pay.