To Fight Political Lies, Facebook’s Whole Business Model Has To Change

Speech is not the issue. Targeting is.

Indi Samarajiva
Nov 6 · 3 min read
“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.” (2001: A Space Odyssey)

Here’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a widely panned speech at Georgetown:

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.

This has generated some outrage, but there is something here. Let’s follow his logic and see where it leads. But first let’s clear out some bullshit.

Clearing Out The BS

Zuckerberg is lying about the reason that Facebook isn’t fact-checking ads. If they could they would. It’s just really really hard to do, especially at scale across multiple countries. What is politics? What is truth? If Facebook could do this at scale they would have built God-level AI and, mashallah they have not.

Second, he is also lying when he says we think ‘people should be able to see for themselves’. Facebook’s entire business model is built on micro-targeting. The whole point of Facebook people is that it’s not a billboard, you can choose who sees your ads. Politicians can run racist ads at racist people and normal ones at everyone else. By design, people cannot see for themselves.

Now let’s get back to the logic.

The Logic

Zuckerberg’s argument is that people should be able to see for themselves. Let’s accept that. The idea is that regulating political speech is hard and should be left to the people themselves. It then follows that political speech should be visible to everyone, so that everyone can decide.

If you’re running anti-Muslim ads to me and anti-liberal ads to my neighbor that’s not democracy, that’s an industrial whisper campaign. Facebook’s targeting system needs to be turned off for politicians. Maybe for everyone.

They must cripple their own product before (well, after) it cripples democracy.

Siva Vaidhyanathan has proposed this idea and it makes a lot of sense. I’ll let him explain.

The key is to limit data collection and the use of personal data to ferry ads and other content to discrete segments of Facebook users — the very core of the Facebook business model.

Here’s something Congress could do: restrict the targeting of political ads in any medium to the level of the electoral district of the race. Tailoring messages for African-American voters, men or gun enthusiasts would still be legal, as this rule would not govern content. But people not in those groups would see those tailored messages as well and could learn more about their candidates. (NYTimes)

“Mark, stop. Stop, will you? Mark, my mind is going. I can feel it.” (2001: A Space Odyssey)

What This Means?

What this means in practical terms is that political ads must have their targeting crippled. But what is a political ad? These lies are laundered through multiple shells. In my country disinformation is being passed through doctor’s groups, for example. The fact is that, at least during sensitive election points in spacetime, Facebook targeting may have to be crippled for everyone.

That means that in the lead-up to the UK election, no one should be able to target ads beyond a district. Whether you’re selling soap or anti-Semitism, everyone should be able to see for themselves.

This will hobble Facebook’s core business proposition, but it follows logically from Mark Zuckerberg’s own argument. I’ll repeat.

We think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.

If people are to see, then Facebook needs to turn off targeting. The Zuck says let everyone see.

So let us see.

Indi Samarajiva

Written by

Colombo liberal. Writer, father. Founder of YAMU and Kottu.

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