We live in strange times. One of the clearest signals of this is the hordes of people lining up to demand that Facebook and other digital giants fact-check their political ads.
Some of that is down to Donald Trump, who seems to be licensing a whole new standard of political lying. Some is down to social media, which lets us all hear everyone’s voices. But the old response to this remains the best: the answer to bad speech is not censorship; it’s more and better speech.
Beyond that general principle, I can think of four specific reasons to oppose making Facebook fact-check its political ads.
Do we trust Facebook?
The first and most obvious question is DO WE WANT MARK ZUCKERBERG DECIDING WHICH POLITICAL MESSAGES WE SEE?
Um, sorry for shouting there, but the raw stupidity of this demand is really startling. All the people who are angry at Zuckerberg seem to also want him to make their censorship decisions for them. I am pretty sure this is not his core skill.
Of course, Zuckerberg has better things to do than check the ads himself. He would delegate the political ad-checking down through several layers of executive to people like Jared, a 23-year-old with a political science degree, a Che Guevara T-shirt and a firm belief that Louis CK and Lady Gaga are the only honest political voices of our time. Jared will have hundreds of ads to check each day. He will make some bad judgments, because he is an ordinary human, not a god.
Facebook already makes judgements about its content in some circumstances, and I’m already uncomfortable with that. I don’t want the company legally obliged to make more of those judgements.
Here’s why. Freedom of speech is one of the basic operating systems of our society. We should not meddle with it unless we have very good reasons, unless our intervention will clearly make things better, and unless the intervention is being done transparently by trusted institutions.
None of that will be true of political ad fact-checking.
Do we know what’s true?
Before we meddle with freedom of speech, we also need clear lines of demarcation for the speech we plan to prohibit. We have a hard enough time justifying obscenity and defamation laws, as we should.
But surely it’s easy enough to establish political truth and falsity?
No, it’s not. Lies are not just stuff that you or I or Jared or even The Washington Post know is wrong. The Post, for instance, says that Trump lies every time he declares that the US “has the greatest economy in its history”. And certainly US GDP growth has been tepid recently. But in inflation adjusted dollars, the US economy is larger than ever before, both absolutely and on an average-per-person basis. So who’s lying about that?
A better criticism is that Trump’s claim is unimpressive; the US economy grew at broadly the same rate for most of Obama’s presidency. But to hype a fact is not to lie.
Courts have traditionally been reluctant to rule on the truth or falsity of political claims. This is why. If courts won’t rule, why should Facebook be forced to do so?
Is Facebook a publisher?
You often hear the observation that Facebook needs to accept its new grown-up responsibilities. Facebook is now a publisher, they say, and it should act that way.
I’ve been a publisher and it’s a very different job from what Facebook does. At publishing’s core is a particular type of responsibility: you and your team spend a great deal of time deciding what will appear under your masthead’s name.
This is precisely what Facebook doesn’t do. Yes, Zuckerberg says Facebook is “responsible for the content that appears on our platform”. And yes, Facebook has occasionally sought to be classified as a “publisher” for the purpose of some law or another. But it clearly doesn’t mean to accept the traditional responsibility that comes with being a publisher. Nor should it.
Facebook’s responsibility should be a light and limited one. It’s less like a newspaper and more like a telephone company. It has some basic duties in providing a utility service, but not the responsibility to check all of the messages it carries.
Do we want to see what politicians are doing?
Finally, there’s the explanation that Zuckerberg has given in speeches: that people should be able to see what politicians do, good or bad. I have no idea whether he really believes this, but it’s a pretty good argument nevertheless: “We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.”
Facebook is far from a blameless organisation. Its privacy sins are many and some of them severe, but that does not mean we should load it with responsibility for all the failings of the world’s social media dialogues.
My hope is that 20 years from now, we will look back on this as one of those short periods of madness that occasionally overtakes the world of communication.
Hope, of course, is not a plan.
So here’s the plan: push back against those who claim that in this digital world we must put aside freedom of speech.
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