Here's Why Facebook Won't Do The Obvious

Let’s be clear: I’m not a fan of the way Facebook has manipulated us: our interactions, our democracy, our sense of self. I’m not a fan of the way it amplifies racism and hate speech. I’m not a fan of the way it disseminates information. I’m not at all convinced that, on balance, it represents a net positive to society -- although I’m open to the debate.

And so it feels strange to be in a position of defending Facebook. But last week, when my fellow Media Insider Maarten Albarda asked, “What Is It With Facebook Not Doing The Obvious?,” I felt compelled to answer.

Maarten’s argument in a nutshell: Political advertising represents an insignificant part of Facebook’s revenue, so -- given the headache it represents – “why not ban the whole political spectrum of ads, content, posts, etc.?”



If we assume this is possible, the first question is whether this would produce a good outcome.

It would certainly, as Maarten says, prevent Facebook from being “accused of bias for or against any political preference, real or imagined.” But let’s further assume that, when we say “good outcome,” we don’t mean for Facebook, we mean for humanity.

OK, so when we ban the whole political spectrum, what does that include? Yes, false political ads; yes, stretched truths; yes, people taken out of context. Your political opponents will no longer be able to sully your feed with blatant lies about your preferred politician, party or policy.

But we won’t only be banning the content we don’t want -- we'll also be banning the stuff we like.

In political thought experiments, it’s always useful to consider how you would feel if things were reversed. For example, if you think the electoral college sucks because your candidate won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, consider how you would feel if your candidate won the electoral college but lost the popular vote -- would you still feel the same?

So now imagine your preferred politician, party or policy is no longer able to use Facebook to get the word out about their awesomeness. How will causes make themselves known? Three options: traditional advertising, earned media (meaning news coverage), and virality.

Traditional advertising is way more cost-prohibitive than advertising on Facebook, so now you’ve fully advantaged the bigger players. Earned media is much harder to get if you haven’t made a bit of a splash in the first place, and relying on virality as a reach strategy is like relying on Lotto as a retirement strategy.

So eliminating political ads on Facebook altogether would advantage the bigger, richer players, who can afford to use traditional advertising to grow their presence, making it more likely that the news will cover them.

But here’s the thing: the original assumption -- that it’s even possible to ban the whole political spectrum -- is false.

If Facebook bans “political” ads, the community group fighting against a new coal mine is silenced, while the fossil fuel company advertising its “eco-fuels” is allowed.

The parents group arguing for gun control is silenced, while the gun company advertising its new weapons is allowed.

The nonprofit seeking clear food labeling is silenced, while the junk food company advertising directly to kids is allowed.

You want to know why Facebook doesn’t do the obvious and ban all political advertising? It’s because everything is political -- especially our choices about who does and doesn’t get to pay to have their voices amplified.

I’m all for fixing the way Facebook has poisoned our political discourse. But straight up banning political ads isn’t it.

There has to be a better way.

4 comments about "Here's Why Facebook Won't Do The Obvious".
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  1. Ken Kurtz from creative license, January 17, 2020 at 1:12 p.m.

    Your premise that Facebook has "poisoned our political discourse" is flawed. Political discourse has always been poisonous. 'Tis the nature of the beast...

    My first job out of college was with Hearst Magazines at 224 W. 57th Street back in 1981. I came from a long line of newspapermen... I was the first to deviate to heavier stock paper, and less staining ink. I spent my first six months at Hearst in a training program, and I was quite fascinated with the Hearst family's background in newspapers... including the way William Randolph rolled back in the day.

    Bottom line, there was discourse published in American newspapers as early as the 1700's and 1800's that make today's discourse look positively tame.

    People are ascribing way too much, too unrealistically, to Fakebook. But I wouldn't know... I've never had a Fakebook account. I guffaw at the notion that my vote in 2016 was "corrupted" by Fakebook. Tomfoolery...

  2. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, January 18, 2020 at 3:30 a.m.

    It's sadly predictable. In most discussions of digital, once you introduce the topic of social absorbs all the available mental oxygen. If there is even a hint of politics, smart folks are advised to bring oxygen tanks or noise cancelling ear-buds--or both.

    Kaila makes some very relevant points and Ken's is also well taken. While social will retain some of its original, rather benign functionalities, the vector seems is about clusters of tribes and the reinforcement of mutually shared beliefs, attitudes and emotions--no matter how unattached to reality and fact they might be. Bad actors will continue to exploit it.  Sounds a little like politics doesn't it?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, January 20, 2020 at 3:09 p.m.

    You mean fbeast ? For every cool and great tech item (including the intangible), there are hundreds of ways to use it for evil. Therefore, before any of it is unleashed like Pandora did, regulations which can/should be reviewed with the ability to be altered every few years, put into place with a collaboration from law makers, the tech community and ethic advisors and no lobbyists. Heculean task. Still can be done. Without it, we all sink.

  4. Tom Tyler from GCTVTexas, January 27, 2020 at 5:01 p.m.

    The American people don't need, don't support and will no longer tolerate self-appointed "gatekeepers" over the information flow on the internet. Facebook, Twitter, Google and company need to be instructed, by law or court decision, that they are not content providers and cannot act as censors. Otherwise, we will simply dismantle them by law. Nobody needs them, anyway. Google's growth is the result of nothing more than convenience for the rest of us. Any number of search engines could replace them at any time we choose. Same goes for the rest of "social media".

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