In a thrilling game of one-upsmanship, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced on a Twitter thread today that the company would no longer accept paid political promotions on its network. This stood in stark contrast to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rather sterile trip to Capitol Hill on October 23 where essentially, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook will continue to sell ads for political campaigns, even if they were dishonest or flat out untrue.
Here we have two networks whose policies shape how and what information we get taking two separate sides of the coin. Zuckerberg’s Capitol Hill appearance was interesting to watch. We saw congressmen and women openly chastise Facebook for its stance while essentially begging Zuckerberg to be the harbinger for truth. It was certainly an odd stance that an unelected organization should be able to yield tremendous power to suppress political speech that it, in its sole discretion, deemed to be “untrue.” To Dorsey’s credit, he made it clear that Twitter would not be the decider on what was true or not and they simply would ban it all.
Which CEO got it right? Well it comes down to a matter of opinion. The fact is, political misinformation (aka “spin”) is as American as the bald eagle and apple pie and dates back to the very beginning.
The election of 1796, pitting John Adams against Thomas Jefferson was one of the most vicious in our history. Adams and Jefferson both took turns writing columns in their partisan papers accusing the other of awful misdeeds while penning their names under Greek and Roman pseudonyms, a rather common tactic of the time. That election season was so gross with political misinformation that famed biographer Ron Chernow would use the words “fake news” in his 1000-page essay on the life of George Washington which was published in 2009 and well before that term came of age during the 2016 campaign.
The rematch of 1800 was no better. Jefferson was attacked as an “atheist in religion, and a fanatic in politics”. The Connecticut Courant heeded words of warning against a Jefferson presidency: “There is scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”
Jefferson went on the attack by claiming that President Adams was a monarchist who wanted to reverse the course of the Revolution. The Jefferson partisans even went so far as to accuse Adams of sending General Thomas Pinckney to England to procure four mistresses which would be split between the two men. Adams’s response: “I do declare if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”
These historical references aren’t intended to be used as an excuse for modern day political bad behavior. But it does show that the more things change… the more they actually stay the same. The hallmark of a free and open society is one where ideas are free to operate. Authoritarian states don’t have this problem because they control the flow of ideas and suppress ones that they deem to be unfair, untrue, or dangerous to their power structure.
Twitter’s stance isn’t an affront to free speech and shouldn’t be considered as such. Until the social networks are regulated as utilities (and they one day will be), they’re free to suppress or promote whatever ideas they deem proper – an alarming amount of power held by a few, unelected people.
But did they get their policy right? Who will benefit from the total blackout of political advertising?
In his Twitter thread, Dorsey said it was counterintuitive to say that they’re working hard to stop misinformation, but if you pay for it, it’s an effective free-for-all. He’s got a point here. But political campaigns have always been about messaging, organization, and fundraising. In fact, Twitter’s policy would have an adverse effect on lesser-known, lesser-funded candidates giving the rich and often incumbent candidates a sizeable headstart over their opponents. Digital ads, especially on Twitter and Facebook, are some of the best bangs for the buck you can buy for political messaging. The establishment class can afford 50 yard signs on every block and expensive primetime TV spots. It makes it much more difficult for a legitimate challenger to wrestle control over his or her establishment opponents. Dorsey says that he trusts that the social movements will evolve past it.
That’s putting a lot of hope into a system soon-to-be-rigged against the small guy. It will likely do nothing but enshrine the power of opinion among those who already have it.
So does Facebook have the policy right? Not exactly, but it’s closer to the laissez-faire approach that has been prevalent in the American experiment from the beginning. Who should have the power to decipher truth from lie?
You do. The people do with the almighty act of voting.
Although newspapers and broadcasters have the power to veto any advertising spot to anyone for anything, Facebook is foregoing this broad-reaching power while Zuckerberg essentially said that they’re not qualified to make such sweeping decisions. They’ll accept any ad from anyone as long as it follows its advertising policy.
This, of course, invites the incendiary political ad full of lies where the truth can’t be seen. It’s also true that a lie will travel around the world 3 times before the truth gets out of bed. In the digital age, it circles the globe 50 times over. Political shenanigans will proliferate, and we have to accept that. The coming-of-age of Gen Z will start to balance the equation. These are digitally savvy individuals who have been trained from an early age to treat digital information with a grain of salt. Their ability to discern truth from fiction may not be perfect, but they’ll approach it with a hefty dose of scrutiny that their older counterparts may be unable to do. As the younger generations increase as the share of the voting population, the expectation should be that misinformation becomes a neutered version of what it is today. Where does that leave us? In essentially the same spot we were in 1796 where it was public knowledge which newspapers provided propaganda for which party.
After all, what else is as American as the bald eagle and apple pie? Distrust of politicians.