Unpopular decisions

I will please no one with this post about Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions regarding political advertising and news.

The popular opinion would be to praise Twitter for banning political and issue ads and condemn Facebook for not fact-checking political ads. I’ll do neither. I disagree with both companies, for I think they each found diametrically opposed ways to take too little responsibility for what occurs on their platforms.

First Twitter. A week ago, I disagreed on Twitter with someone who said Facebook should ban political ads. Then a few Twitter folks asked me — on Twitter, of course — why I said that. I explained my perspective, but clearly was not persuasive.

My view: if we cut off inexpensive and efficiently targeted political — and, as it turns out, issue — advertising, then we likely will be left with big-money campaigns still using mass media (that is, TV) just as we had hoped to leave that corrupt era behind. I fear that such a move will benefit incumbents — who have money, recognition, and power — at the cost of insurgents. Without advertising on social media would we have the next @AOC? Yes, I know that Ocasio-Cortez herself is endorsing Twitter’s decision but as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim points out in a thoughtful thread, even she spends money on social-media advertising. If new movements are cut off from using social advertising, Grim argues, it could be “a huge blow to progressives, and a boon to big-money candidates.”

I also argue that at some point, we must trust the public, the electorate, ourselves. If we cannot, then we are surrendering democracy. We must put our faith in the public conversation. If you want to improve it, wonderful: Promote reliable, quality news (as Facebook is doing with its news tab — more on that below); support education by new means; donate questionably gotten gains from political advertising to campaigns to fight voter suppression; support (as Twitter hopes to do) expertise over mere blather. Will we ever, as my German friends on Twitter recommend, ban political advertising in the U.S.? NFW. Because First Amendment.

Now, Facebook. [Disclosure: Facebook has funded projects at my school. I receive no compensation from any platform.] Mark Zuckerberg has said definitively that Facebook will not fact-check political ads. That, I agree with, but not for the reason you might assume. Truth is the wrong standard. If truth were so easy then we wouldn’t need countless journalists to find it. No one will trust Facebook to decide truth. But I do think that Facebook should set and uphold standards of dignity, decency, and responsibility in the public conversation and hold everyone — politicians and citizens, users and advertisers — accountable. If Facebook wants to leave up noxious speech by pols so we can see and judge it, OK, but it should add a disclaimer disapproving of the behavior. (Twitter has said that will be its policy, but I’ve yet to see it in action.) If a politician uses a racial slur in political ad — say, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers — Facebook must condemn that behavior, or its Oversight Board likely will. If Facebook accepts such words without comment or caveat, then it must be presumed to condone them. I’d find that unacceptable.

In the end, both Facebook and Twitter — and let’s throw Google and all the other platforms in now — refuse to make judgments. They cannot get away with that anymore. They are hosts to conversation and communities. They have an impact on that conversation and thus on democracies and nations. They are private companies. They are going to have to make judgments according to public principles, no matter how allergic they are to that idea.

Now to Facebook and its news judgments. Last week, the company announced details of its new news tab, Zuckerberg joining with Murdoch lieutenant and News Corp. chief executive Robert Thomson, a caustic critic of Facebook, Google, and ultimately the internet. I have worried about the precedent of a platform paying for content, which is one reason why I have supported Google’s decision not to pay European publishers’ extortion under the EU’s new Copyright Directive. But I am also happy to see a technology company stepping up to support quality news and so I’m loathe to look the gift horse in the mouth. In the end, I’m glad Facebook is making its news tab and, even if with its checkbook, making peace with publishers.

But then Facebook decided to include Breitbart in its corral of trusted, quality publishers in the new news tab. Now I’m having an allergic reaction. The project Facebook supported at my school aggregates signals of quality in news. By my standards, Breitbart is far from quality. (This is outdated — from Steve Bannon’s time there — but here’s a good roundup from Rolling Stone of awful things Breitbart has published. I’d say 10 strikes and you’re out.) I understand Facebook’s desire — expressed by Zuckerberg in the company’s news tab announcement and again by news VP Campbell Brown here — to include a range of perspectives. The real problem is that we — we in media, in journalism, in Silicon Valley — have not grappled with the political asymmetry in both news media and disinformation. The real solution, I have argued, lies in investing more in responsible, credible, fact-based, journalistic conservative media to compete with the likes of Fox News — and Breitbart. Now, if you want to present some number of conservative sources, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself staring at Breitbart and worse.

Paradoxically, in their effort to find the mythic middle, the platforms are falling into the journalistic trap of objectivity — or as the right puts it these days, neutrality. That sounds like safe space, neither this nor that. But as Jay Rosen has lectured journalists for the better part of a decade, the view from nowhere is a myth — in my words, false comfort and a lie. It doesn’t exist. There is no safe escape from these hard problems. There are no popular decisions.

The platforms — all of them, whether they want to be lumped together or not — are facing tremendous political pressure as the right and left are forming a pincer movement exploiting moral panic to go after them as a class, jeopardizing freedom of expression on the internet for all of us. That is why I defend the platforms, to defend the internet; and why I also push them to do better, to improve the internet. I understand their panic in response. But hiding from judgment is not the answer. To the contrary, every technology company must make a bold and brave decision about where it stands, about the covenant it is offering the public, about the principles of dignity and decency it will defend.

Killing political and issue advertising is no solution. Refusing to hold political and issue advertising to account is no solution. Refusing to judge journalism is no solution. Politicians — and especially media — forcing technology companies into these corners is a problem.

What I fear most is the unintended consequences of these too-easy answers. I’ll end by recommending a just-released paper from economists warning about the cost of the precautionary principle: that when out of precaution we forbid something (whether political advertising or, in the case of this paper, nuclear power) we risk a consequence that could be worse. It sounds so satisfying to tell technology companies they should butt out of politics, but then we take the tools they provide away from the very people who have not been heard by mainstream media and who are finally empowered by the net, and we leave that power in the hands of the legacy regimes that have so screwed up the world. Be careful what you wish for and retweet and like.