The Internet Didn’t Invent Lying Politicians — Contrary to Claims of Tech Critics

Carl Szabo
Nov 5 · 4 min read

Political ads are nothing new. Misleading statements are nothing new in politics either. But when this occurs online, as opposed to on TV or in newspapers, that’s when tech-critics like Tim Wu suddenly have a problem.

In his New York Times op-ed, Wu airs his grievances with online businesses that dare to host political ads. Moreover, Wu complains that these businesses dare to allow politicians to include false statements in political ads.

The same ads Wu complains about on Facebook are rampant on cable and broadcast television.

But rather than unfairly singling out tech platforms, Wu should talk about the real questions at hand; should we as a country allow paid political ads? Should we develop a “Ministry of Truth” to determine the veracity of the ads?

Instead of answering the tough questions, Wu uses 800 words to advance his ongoing campaign against Facebook and Google. He suggests that politicians lying is something the internet created and something that Facebook and Google can and must solve.

Wu is not opposing political ads. Nor is he opposing untruthful political ads. He is just opposing them if they are on social media. He makes misleading statements suggesting that the Facebook “give[s] itself a special, unregulated power over elections.”

Wu ignores the fact that the same ads he complains about on Facebook are rampant on cable and broadcast television. And of course there are plenty of political ads in print media.

In both these mediums the networks and newspapers themselves are the ones who can decide if an ad is run and where it is placed. If a newspaper so wishes, it can choose to only run ads of a certain candidate.

So it’s hard to see the “special power” Wu complains about.

Both traditional and social media can similarly sell ad space. If anything, cable news and legacy newspapers may have an advantage here as they can sell ad space off of the internet too (which would explain why such a large percentage of political ads are spent on these legacy industries and only six percent spent online).

Misleading statements in political ads and campaigns has existed since the days of Aristotle, but Wu implies the internet created this problem.

So it is hard to see why social media should be held culpable for the age-old political practice of truth twisting — that is unless you hold a general dislike of these services in the first place. It seem like Wu’s real concern is his ongoing dislike of innovative businesses like Facebook and Google.

If Wu is really concerned with political ads that is a much bigger conversation — but perhaps he just doesn’t like the idea of political advertising money going to internet companies.

If Wu is worried about truth in advertising that is also a much bigger conversation. Should Obama’s infamous claim that “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” be labeled as a lie? Should Trump’s 2016 guarantee that “Mexico will pay for the wall” been banned from political ads? Should Senator Warren’s debunked claim that her tax plan won’t raise taxes on the middle class be blocked?

Misleading statements in political ads and campaigns has existed since the days of Aristotle, but Wu implies the internet created this problem. By pushing large online platforms to become arbiters of truth in political ads, Wu — a skeptic of large businesses — is asking social media companies to play a larger role in shaping political debate.

It’s easy to blame technology for disruptions in politics, but if we are going to address the concerns of political ads and truth in politics then we must recognize there is no easy fix and every approach will have unintended consequences — a desire to force online services to be some sort of truth police will inevitably harm marginalized voices.

Nowhere in his attack of online political ads does Wu discuss the importance of paid political ads for underdog candidates. Wu, himself an underdog in an unsuccessful New York AG bid, should appreciate the need for tools to amplify messages when traditional earned media won’t give you the time of day.

Being an electoral underdog means that you struggle more than mainstream candidates when it comes to organically sharing your message. Few political channels — like cable talk shows, are willing to entertain your policy ideas or political views. This means that paid promotion can be crucial to getting your message in front of voters.

Let’s remember that without the power of the internet and political ads, Sen. Obama couldn’t successfully challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Without the power of the internet and political ads, Sen. Sanders wouldn’t have been able to challenge Sec. Clinton in 2016.

Paid political ads are essential for underdog candidates.

In 2018, Beto O’Rourke would have been even less likely to beat Sen. Cruz in their competition for Senate were it not for his ability to use political advertising online. O’Rourke was the top political spender on Facebook in 2018, outspending his opponent, Sen. Cruz 10 to 1, enabling him to come within two percentage points of winning in the red state.

At the end of the day, if a business wants to host political ads, like newspapers, radio, and TV do, then they should be allowed to. If a business doesn’t want to host those ads, that should be okay too.

It seems as though Wu doesn’t want to eliminate political ads or stop lies in political ads, he just wants the newspapers, radio and TV stations to be the only ones a able to profit from it.


Carl Szabo

Written by

Tech and Privacy Attorney specializing in federal, state, and international legislation and tech issues.



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