When it came out last month that Facebook doesn't fact-check political ads -- in fact, hasn't for more than a year -- I was furious.
Furious because, of course, it was once again Facebook driving the train on an ever-lengthening journey away from a shared set of facts.
Furious because freedom of speech doesn't mean Facebook has to amplify you or run your ads -- they already have lots of restrictions about what you can and can't post on their site.
But mostly furious because freedom of speech is intended to counter oppression by ensuring minority or unpopular opinions get a chance to be heard, and not to allow people in positions of power, with the appearance of authority, on a mainstream website, to blatantly lie to you in ways that directly benefit them and directly harm you and your loved ones.
I didn't think it could be legal. So I went to the Truth In Advertising page of the Federal Trade Commission's website. Vindicated! There, at the top of the page, were the words:
“When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it's on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”
Reasonable and comforting. Reasonable, because why wouldn't we want ads to be truthful? Comforting, because it's so nice to know that people are required by law to tell the truth when they're trying to sell you something.
Unfortunately, that statement has a massive limitation on it that goes unmentioned on the site: the law does not apply to political ads, as explained in this article from Time magazine back in 2008:
“When Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to claim that fried chicken could be part of an effective diet program in 2004, the Federal Trade Commission penalized the company, requiring it to pull the commercials and submit all advertising for FTC review for the next five years… [but c]andidates are not held to the same commercial standard, and the reason is simple: their statements and advertisements are considered ‘political speech,’ which falls under the protection of the First Amendment.”
In a speech at Georgetown last week, Mark Zuckerberg said, “We don't fact-check political ads. We don't do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.” He went on to say: “Democracy depends on the idea that we hold each others’ (sic) right to express ourselves and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want. You can't impose tolerance top-down. It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story for society that we all feel we're a part of.”
His description is a fantasy. The ads people want banned have nothing to do with people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story, and everything to do with -- as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hypothesized in her withering questioning of Mark Zuckerberg this week -- targeting predominantly Black voters with the incorrect election date, or saying Republican primary contenders had voted for the Green New Deal when they hadn't.
In a Facebook world, those ads are not part of a free exchange of ideas. There is no way to debate and debunk them in any meaningful way that would counteract the damage from the lies.
For those of you reading this and thinking I want your freedom of speech taken away: it is possible to address this and still maintain a free society. Lots of countries have rules around this stuff, including Canada, England and France.
If they can do it, why can't we?