Commentary: Facebook was not made for democracy

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

How close are we going to skate to the edge of losing democracy before we decide to regulate social media platforms like Facebook? We have given the Mark Zuckerbergs of this nation a free hand longer than any other media operators in the world, and they have shown no real social responsibility.

Did you know that while Joe Biden was vice president, he promised Ukraine $1 billion in U.S. aid if it would fire a prosecutor investigating a company that was paying Biden’s son to sit on its board?

Had you heard that Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham was backing the Green New Deal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats whom President Donald Trump has labeled socialists?

Neither is true. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you saw ads on Facebook trumpeting such lies. And founder Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear in hearings and statements in recent weeks that he has no intention whatsoever of helping Facebook’s millions of U.S. subscribers determine what is true and what is false in ads on his platform during the 2020 presidential campaign, which is already well on its way with candidates having spent more than $60 million in ads on Facebook and Google.

At that pace, such spending is sure to surpass the $80 million spent in 2016, the bulk of it from Trump’s campaign. And that doesn’t count the tens of millions spent by foreign countries and other groups to spread disinformation, propaganda, conspiracy theories and lies.

The last month has been filled with news about Facebook and its unwillingness to police itself, to act with any shred of the kind of editorial accountability demanded of broadcasters since the Communications Act of 1934.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been blasting away at Zuckerberg and Facebook on the campaign trail for the decision to carry ads like the one cited at the start of this column from the Trump campaign lying about Biden and an alleged billion dollar payoff in connection with his son. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden in connection with his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of Ukrainian energy firm, which is one of the reasons CNN refused to air the ad.)

“Facebook holds incredible power to affect elections and our national debate. They’ve decided to let political figures lie to you —even about Facebook itself —while their executives and their investors get even richer off the ads containing these lies,” Warren wrote in one of several tweets.

“If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it,” she wrote in another. “But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks.”

Warren has vowed to break up big tech firms like Facebook. Zuckerberg, in remarks made to his employees, has vowed to fight her tooth and nail with a “major lawsuit” if she tries.

Ocasio-Cortez has also become a very public critic of Zuckerberg over his unwillingness to take down political ads that contain lies. Last week, she confronted him at a congressional hearing asking him pointedly what it would take for him to remove political ads that contained material that had been shown to be false.

The core of his dissembling answer: Facebook will not remove a politician’s speech even if it is clearly false.

The false Facebook ad alleging that Graham backed the Green New Deal was posted in the wake of that exchange by a political action committee named The Really Online Lefty League to test, highlight and possibly mock Facebook’s policy on political lies.

The ad was taken down Saturday with Facebook saying it will take down lies from political groups but not from politicians.

It is not just politicians and groups on the left that have called out Facebook for the way its policies imperil democracy.

The New York Times reported Monday that more than 250 Facebook employees signed a letter to Zuckerberg protesting his decision to let politicians lie in ads on the platform.

The letter says Zuckerberg’s decision “allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”

And yet, for all of the criticism, outrage and documentation of disinformation that Facebook has published in the last three years, nothing has changed for the better since 2016. In fact, things are worse: The biggest liar in the history of the American presidency has the largest media platform in the history of the world to spread his propaganda, misinformation, lies, innuendo, smears and conspiracy theories as we plunge deeper into the 2020 race. And you wonder why our information ecosystem is so polluted ? and we are such a confused and agitated country.

Early in 2018, I wrote a column asking how close we were going to skate to the edge of losing our democracy before we decided to regulate social media platforms like Facebook.

If this isn’t the edge, it’s more than close enough for me.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.