All politicians lie, of course. But most politicians know not to make false assertions that are easily checked and inarguably wrong. If they don’t know this when they attain office, they quickly learn. Yet Trump doesn’t merely ignore those wise precepts; he actively shuns them. He says things that are indisputably false, not to mention often bizarre. If you are among Trump’s many opponents, this is very frustrating; even more frustrating is the fact that he gets away with it. Which is one reason the left has been pressing the media, including social media, to get more aggressive about pruning falsehoods from the public square.
The media has responded to this pressure, which is why you now see more hostile headlines about Trump, or stories that follow the president’s statements with some variant of “This is false,” than any outlet would have countenanced a decade ago. But social media has resisted. Facebook has said it won’t fact-check the ads it accepts, and Twitter one-upped it by saying it won’t accept any political ads at all.
The left is disappointed, and on one level, so am I. Banning political ads from Twitter will have substantial costs, especially for new politicians and organizations, who don’t have a deep mailing list they can tap for donations and volunteers. But both Twitter and Facebook’s approaches are probably better than the alternative, which is for social media networks to try to determine the truth or falsehood of thousands of ads, in real time and on the tiny margins of web advertising.
To see how difficult this is, let’s go back to Barack Obama’s promises that “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” Anyone who knew anything about the health-care system knew that this was untrue the moment Obama uttered the words — and moreover, that the president, or whoever was feeding him talking points, must have known it was untrue. There was simply no way to change the health-care system so extensively without shoving some folks off their old plans. And critics of Obamacare, including me, said as much at the time.
During the bitter debates that followed, fact checker Politifact jumped in more than once to decide who was right, and it rated Obama’s claim “True” in one instance, “Half True” in others. Yet four years later, when Obamacare was finally implemented in 2013, that promise suddenly became Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.”
This from a single fact-checking outlet, whose fact checkers had a comparatively easy job. They got to pick and choose which claims to investigate, leaving some aside if they didn’t have the time. They could take as long as they needed to do a thorough job. They still got it badly wrong.
Yet the people pressing social media platforms to discard false advertising are asking those companies to do something incomparably harder: to sift through all their ads and decide which of them count as a political statement, then fact-check them in real time. This would regularly require judgment calls, because as every journalist knows, it is almost as easy to mislead by stringing together true facts, stripped of vital context, as it is to simply make things up; easier, even.
Given the speed at which social media platforms would have to make these decisions, errors would be inevitable. The biases of the moderators would often substitute for the careful thought they didn’t have time for. Harassed fact-checkers would quash ads they shouldn’t while letting others through that contained vicious falsehoods — but nonetheless now bore the imprimatur of having been fact checked.
Now let’s return to that bias I mentioned, which would be politically corrosive. Center-left folks who protest that all they want is reasonable winnowing of the most obvious falsehoods should try to imagine how they’d feel about such a “reasonable” policy if Facebook announced that henceforth, all its political ads would be fact-checked — by the editors of the National Review. Rather hostile, I’d imagine, and they shouldn’t expect conservatives to be any friendlier towards the idea that their speech must be overseen by the nice progressives of Silicon Valley.
No matter how pure your motives, using your power over a social network in ways that could systematically disadvantage one half of the country is a recipe for civic disaster; heck, it is a civic disaster, and arguably an even bigger one than Donald Trump. One can’t, of course, necessarily expect the other half of the country to understand that. But we should be awfully glad that Twitter and Facebook do.