Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a question for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future,” she said during a recent congressional hearing. “So I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year.”
She asked whether she could target predominantly black zip codes and advertise the wrong election date. Zuckerberg hemmed and hawed a bit, but he finally said no.
“So there is some threshold where you will fact-check political advertisements,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
She offered another hypothetical.
“Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?” she asked.
Zuckerberg said he wasn’t sure.
“I think probably,” he said.
Ocasio-Cortez kept pushing.
“I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here," she said. "What’s fair game?”
She didn’t hide her frustration.
“Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?” she asked.
Zuckerberg tried to elaborate.
“Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad,” he said. “That’s different from it being ... in our position, the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.”
Ocasio-Cortez pressed harder. Would Facebook take down a political ad that contained a flat-out lie?
“In most cases, in a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves,” Zuckerberg said.
The question was not hypothethical. After President Donald J. Trump’s re-election campaign ran an ad making false claims about former Vice President Joe Biden, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren sought to highlight the issue with a fake ad of her own.
“If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it,” she said. “But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks.”
PolitiFact disagreed, rating her claim “mostly false.”
“This is a misreading of both federal and actual practice,” it said. “Federal law requires broadcast networks to run political candidate ads without vetting them for lies or falsehoods. The same law does not apply to cable networks, but those networks also generally aim to run such ads, experts told us.”
Zuckerberg might stumble a bit to explain himself, but he has a point.
“While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judged to be 100 percent true,” he told a recent audience at Georgetown University. “Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover.”
There's a difference between fact-checking ads and blocking them.
“I just think that in a democracy people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying, and I think that people should make up their own minds about which candidates are credible and which candidates have the kind of character that they want to see in their elected officials,” Zuckerberg said on a call with reporters. “And I don’t think those determinations should come from tech companies.”
Zuckerberg is advocating a free marketplace of ideas where everyone can have their say.
It's fine for journalists and opposing candidates to call out lies when they see them, but it's ultimately up to voters to decide who's right and who's wrong. That’s the way democracy works.
— Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI News Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @Kelly_Hawes.