The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Free speech doesn’t mean Facebook must run dishonest ads

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University on Oct. 17. (Nick Wass/AP)

MARK ZUCKERBERG says he is worried about an erosion of truth. He doesn’t believe pulling back on expression in times of tension is the right road for a democracy to take. And he thinks people should not have to live in a world where they can say only things that technology companies judge to be accurate.

All three concerns are well-founded. But they do not, as Facebook’s chief executive claims, mean that Facebook must publish deliberate and damaging falsehoods in political advertising.

Mr. Zuckerberg spoke at Georgetown University last week to defend his company’s decision to allow campaigns to pay to have their lies promoted. The principles underlying the talk were noble. But they also avoided the essential question — which isn’t whether Facebook should be generous toward political speech, but whether it should allow even the most obviously untruthful content unlimited reach, as well.

Micro-targeted data intended for advertising on social media is being used to to change power structures globally, says Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. (Video: The Washington Post)

Certainly a private company should not be deciding what the public can see from its leaders. That’s why Facebook should, and does, allow candidates to say pretty much whatever they want in everyday posts. But with ads, Facebook is offering candidates a helping hand, not an even one. The site is accepting money to bump up posts in the feeds of carefully targeted groups of users. This is a recipe for deception and polarization — especially because incendiary topics are already known to garner more engagement, and then another visibility boost in turn.

These mechanics dismantle Mr. Zuckerberg’s protestations that his company must remain neutral: Facebook isn’t neutral right now. And whichever campaign is most willing to distort — so far this year, it is President Trump’s — will most reap the benefits of the site’s algorithmic biases.

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It’s unsurprising that Facebook would rather not put itself in the position of telling Mr. Trump “no.” Conservatives are already nipping at its heels over nonexistent “censorship,” threatening to legislate limits on treasured legal protections. And while Facebook has proved it can police political ads for profanity, truthfulness is trickier to evaluate.

Still, television networks and newspapers alike have met this challenge. Calling a candidate “corrupt” is acceptable; circulating a widely debunked defamatory hoax shouldn’t be. Facebook’s rules will have to be both nuanced and consistent, and squabbles are likely to arise in local races and national ones alike. The firm has been touting an oversight board. Why not have its members help out here, with full transparency and streamlined appeals? Even adding fact-checking labels to ads, as Facebook announced Monday it would do more prominently with other content, would be better than nothing.

Mr. Zuckerberg during his speech recounted China’s attempts to export its aggressive censorship: “Is that the Internet we want?” Of course it’s not. But we also don’t want an Internet where the way to win an election is to fabricate. The country shouldn’t have to choose between those two options.

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Read a letter in response to this piece: Facebook’s spread of disinformation needs a solution