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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Facebook's facetious lies about ads

Chairman and chief executive of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg

Chairman and chief executive of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the U.S. House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. Credit: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Mark Zuckerberg has a problem.

And the rest of us have a Mark Zuckerberg problem.

The Facebook founder has said, in testimony on Capitol Hill and via speeches by him and his minions, that the social media giant will not police lies in political ads.

This is a problem. Per one accounting, the 2020 presidential candidates led by President Donald Trump already have spent more than $63 million on digital ad buys with Facebook and Google. Two recent ads on Facebook trafficked in lies about former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden's campaign asked Facebook to take them down. Facebook refused (though it said later the ads were inactive and would be fact-checked if they ran again).

Katie Harbath, head of global elections policy for Facebook, wrote the Biden campaign that the company believes in free expression, that political speech is already intensely scrutinized, and, "Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact-checkers."

Brutal questioning from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at last week's Financial Services Committee hearing exposed the incompatible tension in Facebook's words and actions. "I think lying is bad and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie that would be bad," Zuckerberg said lamely, before saying that's not grounds to change the policy. "In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying, and judge their character for themselves."

Zuckerberg says that running political ads, with or without lies, starts discussions that will out bad ads. But that's not how Facebook works. The platform vacuums up user data, allowing campaigns to target ads to those people viewed as likely to be receptive. The people, in other words, most likely to accept — without discussion — the premise of the ads. That's what happened in 2016 with the Russian disinformation campaign.

Facebook head of global affairs Nick Clegg, in a speech last month in Washington, compared Facebook to tennis.

"Our job is to make sure the court is ready — the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height," he said. "But we don't pick up the racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them."

It's an absurd analogy. In a tennis match, as many as nine line umpires literally call shots. A chair umpire rules on questions of fact, like whether the server committed a foot-fault. The referee has final authority on any question of tennis law. Tennis, in other words, is no free-for-all; nor should be political ads on Facebook.

Ocasio-Cortez got Zuckerberg to say that an ad would be taken down when there is an "imminent risk of harm." But his definition of harm — like a call for violence — is narrow and entirely inadequate. What about the harm to our election process and our democracy?

Lying in politics isn't new. It dates at least to the Jefferson-Adams race in 1800. Until 2016, though, it was the exception, not the norm. The real imminent risk of harm is accepting it as normal.

So, yes, feel good that Facebook just took down 50 Russian Instagram accounts (and three from Iran) that used disinformation to praise Trump and attack Biden. Applaud Facebook for hiring tens of thousands of new staff and ramping up its artificial intelligence capabilities so it can ferret out fake accounts and their false or misleading posts in real time.

But understand: If an American politician lied in ads like the Russians, he or she could go right on lying.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.