As the 2020 federal election draws closer, the issue of online political advertising is becoming more important, and the differences in how the platforms are approaching it more obvious. Twitter has chosen to ban political advertising, but questions remain about how it plans to define that term, and whether banning ads will do more harm than good. Meanwhile, Facebook has gone in the opposite direction, saying it will not even fact-check political ads. So whose strategy is the best, Twitter’s or Facebook’s? To answer this and other questions, we convened a virtual panel of experts this week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, including Federal Election Commission member Ellen Weintraub, Alex Howard from the Digital Democracy Project, Ellen Goodman of the Rutgers Law School, and Dipayan Ghosh from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (all of those interviews and more are available here).
Ghosh said he believes Twitter has taken the right approach. “If companies cannot figure out how to shut down the threat of coordinated disinformation operations over their political advertising systems, I believe that they should temporarily and indefinitely shut down those systems,” he said. “That is why Jack Dorsey’s announcement should be praised: the company has said that it will put democracy over profits.” Facebook’s decision not to fact-check ads, he said, “opens up a tremendous threat to the functioning of the political process in this country.” Harvard Law student and Berkman Klein affiliate Evelyn Douek, however, said in her view neither company is 100 percent right. “The best path is somewhere in the grey area in between,” she said. “It’s not obvious that a ban improves the quality of democratic debate. Facebook’s position, on the other hand, seems to rest on a notion of free expression that is nice in theory, but just doesn’t match reality.”
Tatenda Musapatike, director of campaigns for a media-strategy firm called Acronym, said that her organization supports Facebook’s decision not to ban political ads on the platform, because she says such a ban “would put progressive organizations at a disadvantage” in terms of raising awareness. When it comes to the company’s position on fact-checking political ads, however, Musapatike — who used to work at Facebook on the political ad team — says she “wholeheartedly disagrees” with the policy. “I think this argument is indicative of the dangerously optimistic, or even naive, attitude that I think is cause for so many of the platform’s issues,” she says. Alex Howard says the idea behind the Honest Ads Act, which he helped draft while he was at the Sunlight Foundation, was to compel disclosure and transparency, but none of the companies is really measuring up, although he said Google’s policy and infrastructure around ads is “the most mature and least problematic.”
Ellen Weintraub, a member and three-time chairperson of the Federal Election Commission, said “the American people are entitled to have access to a variety of perspectives on the important issues of the day. But they are also entitled not to have their personal data used to manipulate them.” Weintraub said she thinks Twitter went too far in banning political ads altogether, “but Facebook has gone too far in the other direction by having a hands off attitude.” As for the company’s argument that it is merely doing what TV networks do with political advertising, Weintraub said: “My television does not collect the kind of information about my likes, dislikes, and preferences that Facebook does.” Goodman said that Mark Zuckerberg “is simply wrong when he says that broadcasters take whatever political ads they’re given. They don’t. Furthermore, they are subject to a raft of regulations, and they face community backlash (and possibly license problems) when they fail.”
Ultimately, Douek says, “I don’t think this issue is going to be solved by platitudes about free speech or categorical statements about the difficulty of defining truth. I’m much more interested in empirically informed ideas somewhere in between.” Those kinds of ideas, she says, could include reducing financial incentives to run polarizing ads, ensuring that we know who paid for an ad, and perhaps even spending caps and limitations on the extent and types of microtargeting that are allowed for political ads. Ghosh, meanwhile, says that limits on targeting aren’t enough, and that the big digital platforms should commit to not using their proprietary systems to channel ads to the communities that will react most strongly to them.
Here’s more on the platforms and political advertising:
- Weaponization: Weintraub said that politics has moved online “but the law has yet to catch up.” A medium that many people hoped would be a great democratizing force has been shown to have a dark side, she added. “The internet has been a source of disinformation and conspiracy theories and a venue for voter suppression. I worry that with microtargeting, false and misleading messages may be disseminated in a way that does not allow people with conflicting information to counter those messages, because they won’t see them. And the vast data that the platforms collect about us will be weaponized in a way that allows those trying to influence how and whether we vote.”
- Bothsidesism: Vice Media writer (and CJR alumnus) David Uberti says one thing he finds a little amusing is “the extent to which Facebook mimics mainstream media organizations in the way they respond to conservative criticism.” The political right, Uberti says, has found ways to take advantage of Facebook’s policies and norms “in much the same way it’s found ways to take advantage of media outlets policies and norms. Call it bothesidesism at scale.” That strategy suggests that conservative elements in the US — and possibly even within Facebook itself — have played on the company’s fear of angering the right, and achieved the outcome they were hoping for when the platform declined to fact-check political ads.
- Not neutral: Rutgers Law professor Goodman says the US “has an increasingly polluted civic information space, and the pollution is pumped out as paid advertising and as organic shares, and in hybrid forms when advertising is shared organically.” Platforms like Facebook promote this pollution, she says, whether through their algorithm or the rewards they give to amplifiers. The platforms argue that they’re not responsible because they are neutral, Goodman says, “but everything they’re doing screams ‘we’re actually not neutral.’ So here’s what I would say to Facebook: you’ve admitted you’re not neutral about speech or reach; so what do you stand for?”
- Disingenuous: Guardian reporter Julia Carrie Wong says Facebook’s argument that it provides tools for users to assess the truth of ads is weak. “It is simply impossible for any citizen to hear and assess the unfiltered messages that Facebook lets politicians pump out at a truly astonishing scale,” she says. According to the company’s ad library, Donald Trump has run more than 280,000 different Facebook ads since Facebook started collecting them in May 2018. “That’s just one candidate, and only covers about half of his time in office,” Wong says. “So it’s deeply disingenuous for Facebook to suggest that even the most informed citizen should be able to sort through all this information and understand what various politicians are saying.”
Other notable stories:
- Employees in G/O Media’s editorial union urged the company’s private-equity owners to replace the company’s chief executive, Jim Spanfeller, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. In a letter sent on Monday to G/O Media’s owner, the private equity fund Great Hill Partners, the union said a change in leadership was required to improve the performance of the publisher of Jezebel, Gizmodo and Lifehacker. The letter said Spanfeller’s leadership of the company has resulted in decreased web traffic and increased turnover.
- The New York Times announced that it passed its goal of $800 million in annual digital revenue a year ahead of schedule. In 2015, when the company’s digital revenue was about $400 million a year, CEO Mark Thompson set the objective of doubling that amount by the end of 2020. The Times also said it added more than one million digital subscribers last year, the highest annual growth since it launched its paywall in 2011. The company said it now has 5 million total subscriptions, including print and digital, and almost a million of those are subscriptions to the paper’s crossword and its cooking app, which is more than the total number of print subscribers.
- The Senate and Capitol Police are launching a crackdown on the Capitol press corps for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, according to a report in Roll Call. Officials are planning to enact rules they say are meant to protect senators, but media critics say it also suggests that credentialed reporters and photographers whom senators interact with on a daily basis are a threat. The Chair of the Standing Committee of Correspondents complained about the new rules in a Twitter thread, and the Committee to Protect Journalists said the proposed rules will “hamper journalists’ ability to report on an event of public interest.”
- McClatchy Co., the second-largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. by circulation, missed a $12 million debt-interest payment that was due on Wednesday, as it continues to negotiate with creditors to avoid bankruptcy. The company publishes 30 newspapers including the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer, Sacramento Bee, and Kansas City Star, and now has 30 days to work out a deal in which debt could be swapped for equity in the company. Shares of McClatchy are down more than 90 percent in the past year.
- The Gardner News has been the paper of record for the city of Gardner, Kansas, for more than 30 years, meaning it used to be the only place that public notices could be published about topics such as zoning changes and public hearings. But in December, the Gardner City Council voted to strip the newspaper of that status, according to a report in the Kansas City Star. Instead, the council has chosen to publish its legal notices in The Legal Record, which doesn’t appear on newsstands in Gardner at all, contains no news local about Gardner, and costs more for subscribers than The News.
- According to a report from Poynter, Henry Blodget, co-founder and CEO of Insider — the publisher of Business Insider, which acquired by German media giant Axel Springer in 2015 for $450 million — has told staff that he expects the company to have one million paid subscribers at the end of 2025 (compared with about 200,000 now), that he wants to have more than one billion unique visitors per month (the sites have about 375 million currently) and that he plans to have more than 1,000 journalists and analysts on staff by 2025, double what the company has right now.
- An Iranian man who obtained security camera footage showing that two missiles fired by Iranian military forces brought down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran last week fears being arrested by authorities and has gone into hiding, according to a report by BuzzFeed News. The two-minute-long video provides the most complete visual account yet of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8, BuzzFeed says, because it’s the only piece of footage to show both missiles being launched and striking the Boeing 737, which is seen falling from the sky over the village of Khalaj Abad.
- France Libre 24 is a website made to look like a French news outlet, complete with French-language articles and an Eiffel Tower logo. But those cues are deeply misleading — according to a report by Politico and the nonprofit EU DisinfoLab, the site is actually run by a group of Polish far-right activists who are linked to the right-wing Konfederacja party and former MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Its content is frequently copy-pasted from traditional sources such as Agence France-Presse or Ouest France, but modified to fit anti-establishment, anti-migrant, anti-Islam and climate-skeptic themes.
- First Draft is using financial support from the Democracy Fund to roll out a Local News Fellowship project to place at least five paid local news fellows in US communities that are expected to see large amounts of information pollution in this election year, such as Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida.