We can think of few bigger threats to a functioning democracy than a constant onslaught of lies.
Yet nothing is easier in our internet age. Lies that are far too many to fact-check and parse whip across the country and around the globe.
Reasoned debate gets rolled.
On Wednesday, Twitter took a welcome counter measure, saying the social media platform no longer will allow political advertising.
It wasn’t a particularly difficult decision for Twitter given that, compared with other social media channels, it doesn’t make much money from political ads. But it set a precedent and joined the battle for a better standard of conduct — true facts and honesty — in social media.
Twitter’s decision is not ideal, and we might prefer that it take a cue from older forms of media — radio, television and newspapers. Political ads are fine, even a public service, if vetted for accuracy, decency and fairness.
When Twitter bans all political ads, it hobbles the efforts of legitimate nascent political movements and candidates that struggle to get their message out. And Twitter has now put itself in the tough position of having to decree what’s a “political” ad and what’s not, even as sophisticated ad designers get really good at blurring the lines.
Inevitably, Twitter will be accused of gross partisanship by somebody.
But we’ll take Twitter’s public-spirited approach anytime over Facebook’s show-me-the-money policy.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, recently testified in Washington that he will continue to allow politicians to use his company’s massive reach to tell lies, no matter how outrageous, in political ads. Sorting out the credible stuff from the trolling junk, he said in essence, is just near impossible.
Even if ad departments elsewhere have been doing that forever.
Even if it’s just a matter of spending money to hire people to do the job, a not unreasonable expectation for a company worth $193 billion.
Facebook — which owns Instagram and WhatsApp — and other social media sites may shrink from the task of refereeing the enormous number of deceitful political ads appearing on their sites, but they seem happy enough to take the money.
And so we get dreck like the video ad that falsely states that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, back when he was vice president, promised Ukraine $1 billion if it would fire a prosecutor who was looking into a company with which Biden’s son was associated.
Who paid for that false and fact-free ad?
President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
CNN refused to run the ad, but Facebook and other media outlets felt no such reservations, and an old lie got new legs.
There’s an old saying that a lie can travel around the globe while the truth is still putting on its boots. In today’s online world, truth can’t even find its socks.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren tried to make that point last month by running a series of Facebook ads that falsely claimed Zuckerberg endorsed Trump for re-election. The ads included a disclaimer that they were not true, but Warren had made her point — nobody’s keeping out the garbage.
This stuff can be destructive. There are consequences. It may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, where fact-averse Russian trolls rolled out the slanders against Hillary Clinton, and sometimes the danger is more immediate.
There was, for one, that man in 2017 who fired an assault rifle inside a Washington pizzeria because he’d come to believe, having fed at the trough of online conspiracy theories, that it was the headquarters of a sex-slave ring run by Democrats.
In a recent letter, more than 250 Facebook employees asked the company to reconsider its position, saying politicians who lie are “weaponizing” the platform.
They asked that political ads posted on Facebook meet the same standards as other ads, have a visual design that flags them as political ads, not be carefully targeted to certain recipients and be off limits during certain times close to elections.
Every one of those requests is reasonable and doable.
And Mark Zuckerberg should know it.
Chicago Sun-Times, Saturday