Like any tool, however, it can be used by bad actors as well as good. Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 elections relied on its ability to spread false, misleading or divisive messages online. China is doing something similar in this week’s Taiwanese elections in an effort to bring down the country’s pro-independence president and her allies. Combine that with online efforts from hate groups, terrorists and others to spread their malign messages, and one can easily see how social media platforms such as Facebook can be used for evil.
This has in turn led to predictable calls for the regulation of online political speech. Those seeking such regulation contend that viewers can be easily manipulated by false or hateful speech and that preventing that speech is the best way to ensure a truthful, and perhaps even more respectful, dialogue. Conservatives fear such a policy would inevitably be deployed against them owing to the overwhelmingly leftist orientation of much of the social media world’s workforce. But that hasn’t stopped mainly liberal agitators from continuing their effort to pressure Facebook and others to engage in private censorship.
Facebook’s policy stands athwart this purported tide of history, saying “stop.” By refusing to ban so-called false advertising, it also refuses to put Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s minions in the position of deciding which ads are “false” or “hurtful” and which are “true.” Instead, it follows what just a few years ago was liberal dogma, that the antidote for false speech is more speech. This incorporates the spirit of the First Amendment and should be heartily commended.
Zuckerberg’s decision to permit online microtargeting is also praiseworthy. Minorities of all types recognize that their interests and beliefs are often underserved and ignored by a majority that does not share them. Microtargeting makes it cost-effective for political actors to address those concerns. This is true for the left and the right: The trans community can get ads addressing their concerns just as easily as the religiously orthodox can addressing theirs. Microtargeting enables diversity of opinion by letting like-minded minorities organize cost-effectively. As such, it should be lauded, not blasted.
Facebook’s new policy also gives its users more control over the political ads they can see. It allows them to opt out of political ad content, or even opt in if there is information someone wants to view that they think they might not get because they aren’t part of a targeted group. Thus, Esteban can decide he doesn’t want political ads at all while Tanya can decide she wants to get ads aimed at conservative Christians even though she isn’t one. This is the online equivalent of the “do not call” list for people who want to opt out of getting random telephone sales calls, something that has made home life much more pleasant for the millions of people who have signed up for it.
The new policy will not satisfy those who fear that voters will be manipulated, but those fears are largely overblown anyway. China’s unprecedented efforts to sway the Taiwanese electorate appears to have had no influence whatsoever: Polls show the electorate backing the pro-independence candidates by large margins. Most people never click through the banners to actually view the ads anyway, something political pros know. If a banner ad makes a false claim, the aggrieved party can use Facebook’s searchable database of political ads, which will now include the number of Facebook members the ad is intended to reach. Political pros will surely be able to use that information to divine the groups seeing the ad, which would give them the power to place their own ads to counter the charges.
Zuckerberg has previously indicated his strong personal belief in the value of free speech. His company’s new policy shows he’s willing to stand up to the mob and put his company squarely behind those values, too.