Turning Off Political Ads On Facebook Could Have Unpredictable Consequences

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It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when political advertising was relatively uncontroversial. Sure, individual ads regularly proved to be controversial, from the nuclear provocations of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy” to racist fear-mongering of George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton.” And theeconomics of political advertising, which depend heavily on moneyed interests pushing their agenda through opaque front groups, have been the subject of sustained and valid criticism since well before the Citizens United decision.

But the basic idea that a politician ought to be able to buy space in a media outlet and show it to a bunch of people — that was something we mostly had learned to live with. And then social networks came along, and the calculus changed.

Buy an ad in a newspaper or on a TV station and your potential reach is relatively limited, at least compared to the internet. But buy an ad on a social network and its reach is potentially infinite — and it can acquire massive scale in an incredibly short period of time.

The old thinking was, a politician ought to be able to address their constituents — and if they say horrible things, that’s something the public ought to know. The new thinking was — well, sure, but what if he says that Election Day is a week later for the other party? What if he says that members of an ethnic minority have come to the village to eat your babies? What if he tells his army to go shoot a bunch of protesters and buys an ad to brag about it?

Suddenly that combination of scale and speed feels dangerous, in a concrete way. The lie gets halfway around the world before the fact-checkers even see it, and that’s if your social network will even let them fact-check the lies to begin with.

All of that is prelude to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg writing this on Tuesday evening in an op-ed in USA Today:

By giving people a voice, registering and turning out voters, and preventing interference, I believe Facebook is supporting and strengthening our democracy in 2020 and beyond. And for those of you who’ve already made up your minds and just want the election to be over, we hear you — so we’re also introducing the ability to turn off seeing political ads. We’ll still remind you to vote.

And so starting soon, you’ll be able to remove political ads from your Facebook feed. (Mostpolitical ads, anyway: Facebook cannot perfectly identify every remotely “political” ad, and so you may see some anyway.) This approach had been announced in January, but honestly who remembers January, and anyway now it’s here. This optional feature brings Facebook’s approach a step closer to that of Twitter, which banned political ads outright in November. (Google allows political advertising but restricts the ability of advertisers to “microtarget,” or show ads to people based on fine-grained demographic or location information.)

How big a deal is all this? Perhaps not as big as Facebook’s intention, also announced in that op-ed, to register 4 million new voters over the next several months — double what the company estimates it managed to achieve during the last election. And a new voter information hub modeled on a similar module that Facebook created for COVID-19 could also be useful as an island of sanity in a News Feed full of the usual polarized provocations.

But I always think it’s worth noting when, in a democracy, a major media outlet enables the restriction of political speech — even when its intentions are good. Sure, there’s the journalist’s tendency to favor more speech in most contexts. But there’s also an awareness that placing limits on one kind of political speech can often benefit other forms of political speech. Limiting political speech in ads, for example, could favor incumbents, who have less need of advertising.

It could also change the kinds of political speech people see on Facebook. Advertising executives there have told me in the past that political ads tended to be less inflammatory than regular posts on the whole, because fewer people want to see inflammatory messages and thus they can be more expensive to distribute. But unpaid partisan engagement bait circulates widely through Facebook echo chambers. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose does a regular bit on Twitter where he posts the day’s top Facebook posts with links, and the results often skew heavily toward the conservative side. You can imagine a world where partisans disable political ads, see nothing but links to articles that flatter their worldview, and withdraw further into their echo chambers.

You can also imagine a world where politicians take the hint, and stop threatening to send in the military to trample peaceful protesters, or falsely suggest that voting by mail is illegal, orrig up a Facebook ad for a data-collection scheme to look like a link to the official US Census. Maybe, in such a world, people would be less likely to turn off political ads on Facebook. This world is admittedly harder to imagine.

Maybe the political-ad toggle will turn out to be a minor thing. Or maybe researchers will pinpoint it, a few years from now, as a decisive factor in some outcome or another. The interlocking feedback loops of Facebook, its user base, and the wider world are basically impossible to understand in real time.

What you can do, though, is watch the company continuously adjust the trade-offs it is required to make: between speech and safety, between Democrats and Republicans, between the absolutists and the people who think there ought to just be a toggle. Sometimes “giving the user more control” can be the most responsible thing to do. Other times it can represent an abdication of some larger responsibility.

Facebook is now locked in a perpetual tug-of-war between the people who think it should allow more speech, and the people who think it should allow less. Allowing everyone to disable political ads feels like Zuckerberg once more attempting to thread that needle — one whose eye is small and shrinking all the time.

— The Verge

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