Facebook and politics: why should we trust political ads as fact?
In February 2019, Marcus Ball began a private prosecution that transformed the 2016 Brexit referendum into one of the most controversial moments in the history of UK politics. The popularity of his case garnered over half a million in funding and widespread support, with a sole target amidst the chaos: PM Boris Johnson.
He protested Johnson’s ‘highly damaging’ and ‘misleading’ claims of the UK losing £350 million to the EU every week that could be devoted to the NHS: a key figure used in the successful campaign for the UK to leave the EU. However, the heated suit was overturned by the High Court favouring Johnson, dismissively asserting that ‘politicians making false statements is not new’.
Now entering October, this challenge of integrity in UK politics seems to have faded away as Parliament surges through on Brexit negotiations for the end of the month. Nevertheless, recent events concerning Facebook’s advertisement policy have reopened a very similar wound. Former Deputy PM Nick Clegg -now established as vice president of Facebook’s global affairs and communication - discussed the ‘third-party-fact-checking program’, where Facebook effectively removed all political ads from the ‘scrutiny’ of review for false claims.
Any outrage at such a drastic move would be well-founded in its reasoning. We are in an age where even America’s head of state has descended into petty jibes on various social media platforms surrounding false claims, making ludicrous and hyperbolic statements such as the US being ‘the highest taxed nation’ or spending ‘$6 trillion in the Middle East’- all in his first 100 days. And the worst part is that each snappy statement promotes a distorted vision towards immigration or towards international relations, gradually being instilled into the minds of millions of his supporters.
A further threat posed from these lifted bans on fraudulent politics is Facebook’s algorithm on advertising. For the 2016 elections, Antonio Martinez (former advertising staff for Facebook) revealed that Trump’s team paid less per advert on Facebook’s pricing model than the Clinton campaign, purely due to the more ‘provocative content’ that Facebook prioritised for more likes and comments. Now the question of whether fact means more than fiction seems all the more redundant, since false statements can thrive as much as facts in a model that prioritises the reaction to the statement.
What concerns many is whether politics is above the fact-checking that polices false claims, or quite frankly, scams, that indoctrinate the susceptible users of Facebook, a platform that can be accessed from those as young as 13. The vulnerability to political influence of Facebook users has captivated both the Tories and Brexit Party, with each party spending over £100,000 on Facebook advertisements in the space of 90 days ahead of the general election. It is not necessarily a doubt of every supposed ‘fact’ either party uses as fuel for its campaign. However, it is a fear of the power it grants to political falsehood on a platform of 42 million users in the UK alone, simply if the party has enough money to pour into Facebook.
After waves of opposition to this move as we enter a frustrated post-truth era, it seems almost unanimous to onlookers of the dangerous potential this bodes.
But what else can Facebook do?
It is easy for one to attack the site for propagating ‘fake news’ and, as The Philadelphia Inquirer describes it, ‘the Truthpocalypse’. However, there is a reason why Nick Clegg can go to the Atlantic Fair and confidently explain Facebook’s verdict. Facebook is external to politics, and though it can be claimed to have immense influence in elections and campaigns, it has acknowledged the fact that it has no right to scrutinize which statements are appropriate in online political speech, no matter how many ‘fact-checkers’ they have on a team. And it still ensures that in cases where speech was to directly and intentionally incite violence or harm, then it would be removed in the interest of security-this is what Facebook should be concerned with.
For example, promises made by a party in an ad can be deemed hyperbolic by a fact-checker, but to another the question of whether a promise is ‘true’ or ‘false’, no matter how outrageous, may seem more ambiguous. Even if Donald Trump makes the most unfounded statements and promises that one can fathom, targeting him exclusively will simply not account for the broad, innumerable range of influential politicians making similar statements. And to say that someone could check the factual quality of these statements is ludicrous: a small group of Facebook employees being asked to judge digital politics-a subjective, uncertain request-is something that will almost certainly be influenced by the political sway of the employees.
In conclusion, it appears to be an apocalyptic revelation to know that political ads can go unchecked when they mean so much in everything from policy to elections. However, whether it is fact or fiction, it is our decision to choose how to respond to it. If it appeals to us, it only complies to the manipulative nature of almost all political campaigns that has been sustained throughout history. It’s not exclusive to the Facebook era, and quite frankly, it is not the responsibility of a social media site to decide what we should listen to and what we shouldn’t.