There has been a battle between Elizabeth Warren v. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook since the social media giant started accepting incendiary paid advertisements from President Donald Trump in which his campaigns makes claims about former Vice President and Presidential candidate Joe Biden that are, to put it mildly, less than true.
Recently, Warren, in a gutsy move, shot back with an ad that willfully lied about Zuck and Trump so she could make a valid point about Facebook's recent policy of allowing candidates' ads to run on Facebook without any vetting of facts.
What is really at issue is whether laws developed for local broadcast licensees can --- or should --- apply to social media platforms and, really, whether any outlets should be allowed to make billions of dollars knowingly running ads that lie and purposely misinform the public.
In her ad, Warren first claims "Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have endorsed Trump for re-election!" Then she writes, "you might be thinking, how could this possibly be true? Well, it's not. (sorry.)" Warren goes on to make the point that what the Facebook CEO is doing in avoiding responsibility for all fact-checking on the massive social media site is giving Trump permission to lie --- so long as he pays Facebook "gobs of money" to spread those lies to voters. She draws a distinction between the way TV networks and Facebook are handling the ads: "If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it. But Facebook just cashes Trumps checks."
Facebook responded, ironically enough, in a tweet...
"Broadcast stations across the country have aired (the Trump) ad nearly 1,000 times, as required by law. FCC doesn't want broadcast companies censoring candidates' speech. We agree it's better to let voters --- not companies --- decide," they said.
The law Facebook references, the Communications Act, was developed in 1927 and 1934, and was intended to "serve the public interest." It states that local broadcasters (think: your favorite radio or news and weather NBC or FOX or CBS TV affiliate stations) must air any ad a Federal Candidate gives them, just as provided, without being allowed to vet for facts. Since the Act's early 19th century inception, the law was extended to local candidate ads running on cable and satellite TV. (National cable networks like CNN or FOX News are not required to air these candidate ads.)
So Facebook is now using a law designed for small local broadcasters, written in an era of honesty and integrity (at least as compared to our current day), to justify their decision to alter their own policy which forbids purposely misinformation, in order to allow completely false political ads on the platform for an enormous profit. In an interview at Georgetown University on October 17, Zuckerberg claimed the policy of not fact-checking election ads is not pro-conservative, but pro-challenger, whatever that means, adding: "I don't think it is right for a private company to censor politicians."
But doesn't that really mean that whoever has the most money to hire the most effective ad agency to tell the most compelling lie will win the day? According to the Wall Street Journal, spending on political ads will approach a gob-smacking $10 billion during the 2020 election. Think about: 10 billion dollars, targeted at deceiving the American public about the most important issues of our time.
In this new digital era of fake news and noise, real facts need to be easier, not more difficult, for We the People to obtain. We need $40 billion scandal-plagued companies like Facebook, which have sold our data without our permission, to be more accountable to the public and its interests, not less.
We need an industry which stands to take in some $10 Billion during a single election cycle on paid ads alone, to start checking ads for the facts. It is difficult work for professionals --- though billions in ad revenues ought to make it much easier --- while virtually impossible for the unsuspecting viewers of those ads. The first step will be for media companies to require candidates to provide sources to back up their claims; the second to hire displaced journalists (and there are many of them right now, given Facebook-aided gutting of the journalism industry) to review those sources for the truth.
These standards should extend to local broadcasters as well. Why have a law telling local broadcasters (which make most of their profits from political ads) they may not vet any ads for facts? Why not put broadcasters on the side of the public (as they are required under their licenses to be) and say all political ads will be checked for facts, or they won't be run for profits. We the People deserve the truth; our very democracy now hinges on it.
Sue Wilson is an Emmy and AP award winning broadcast journalist turned media reform activist, director of the media reform documentary Broadcast Blues, and founder of the Media Action Center. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @sueblueswilson.