Discover more from Kevin McKenzie
Who's qualified to police objective truth?
In the wake of the 2016 election and the alleged Russian interference to get Donald Trump elected president, there has been a lot of criticism over the ads that Facebook and Twitter allowed to run on their platforms. The argument being that in a cynical move to make money, Facebook and Twitter allowed a foreign government to use their platforms to get the candidate they preferred to be elected President of the United States.
In a recent speech to Georgetown University, Zuckerberg defended Facebook's policy toward political ads:
More broadly though, we’ve found a different strategy works best: focusing on the authenticity of the speaker rather than the content itself. Much of the content the Russian accounts shared was distasteful but would have been considered permissible political discourse if it were shared by Americans — the real issue was that it was posted by fake accounts coordinating together and pretending to be someone else...
The solution is to verify the identities of accounts getting wide distribution and get better at removing fake accounts. We now require you to provide a government ID and prove your location if you want to run political ads or a large page. You can still say controversial things, but you have to stand behind them with your real identity and face accountability...
We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.
I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.
Effective November 22, 2019, however, Dorsey announced that Twitter will be taking a different approach than Facebook.
I favor Zuckerberg's approach, personally, but I don't have a problem with Dorsey's either. Both have made it clear that they don't want to police people's political speech, and shouldn't be the ones making determinations about objective truth in the first place. That's actually, and maybe surprisingly, a respectable position for both of these powerful billionaires to take. They don't want the power that the corporate media and establishment politicians are trying to give to them, and have found opposite ways to not wield that power.
The reason I like the Facebook approach better is because I simply don't believe that anyone was actually swayed in their vote by a couple of potentially false political ads on social media that were possibly run by agents of the Russian government. There's simply no evidence to suggest that this is true. I think that entire narrative was created by partisan hacks who were upset by Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump and who wanted to discredit the legitimacy of the new president.
Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom tv shows, wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg in the New York Times criticizing him for Facebook's position allowing people to run controversial political ads, stating:
I admire your deep belief in free speech. I get a lot of use out of the First Amendment. Most important, it’s a bedrock of our democracy and it needs to be kept strong.
But this can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.
Sorkin is hardly an unbiased or credible source on this, however, given his virulent opposition to Donald Trump for partisan reasons. When Trump beat Clinton in 2016 Sorkin wrote, "And it wasn’t just Donald Trump who won last night—it was his supporters too. The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons." So if we accept that political speech should be policed and untrue statements should not be published, should Vanity Fair remove Sorkin's op-ed because he's so obviously a partisan hack making up excuses for why his favored candidate lost?
But, most importantly, the problem of misinformation in elections is not a problem that Facebook or Twitter or any social media company can actually hope to solve regardless of what they do. If the foundation of American democracy is so brittle that a politician or political group lying in an ad on Facebook or Twitter can have this horrible of an effect, or that hostile foreign governments can so easily turn our elections by buying some stupid ads on social media, then perhaps the problem is with American democracy itself.
The problem is that the United States government is too powerful and does too much, and this invites the worst sort of people to run for office and bad actors to spread lies to keep their hold on that power. Few want to restrain the power of the U.S. government, however, because they want to use that power themselves. They'd rather attack tech companies for making money on ads that they personally don't like and pretend that it's some kind of principled opposition to attacks on their god, democracy.