Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Nov 01, 2019
Is honesty the best policy for social media?

At a time when social media has come under increased criticism for spreading misinformation and fake news, two recent developments have exposed the diametrically opposite stands of two of the world’s biggest and most influential digital communications platforms. While Facebook recently tweaked one of their privacy policies to allow unrestricted political ads without any scrutiny by fact checkers, Twitter – taking a tangentially opposite stand – has announced a ban on all political ads.

Previously, all ads which were false or had misleading content were prohibited on Facebook. The recent policy change, however, will allow politicians to make baseless claims and misinform millions of voters. Facebook has thus passed on the responsibility of policing political ads to its users, who may make their own judgement call to ascertain the veracity of such propaganda. Replying to queries at the House Financial Services Committee hearing, Mark Zuckerberg said, “I think that in a democracy people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying, and I think that people should make up their own minds about which candidates are credible and which candidates have the kind of character that they want to see in their elected officials and I don’t think those determinations should come from tech companies.”

Seen in the light of accusations on President Donald Trump of making false claims in his Tweets and Facebook ads, such a policy would thus give him – and other politicians around the world – the leeway to continue to misinform the masses without the fear of facing the consequences of their actions. This, despite the fact that the Federal Trade Commission Rules in US state that all the claims in advertisements must be truthful and have to be evidence-based.

Taking a principled stand against such policies, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on 31 October announced a ban on all political advertising with some exceptions. He announced his decision via a twitter post: “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” He went on to explain his reasons for doing so in a series of other tweets: “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions. Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.” In 2018, political advertising on Twitter generated a revenue of nearly $3 million, which is less than 0.5 percent of its net revenue of $909 million.

On the other hand, while Facebook too generates negligible revenue from political ads, it has chosen to ignore Dorsey’s views and disregard the potential – and possibly dangerous – misuse of the platform. As Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg explained, “It’s not for the money, it’s a very small part of our revenue. It is very small, and very controversial, we’re not doing this for the money. We take political ads because we really believe they are part of political discourse.”

Today, videos, ads and tweets go viral within minutes of being posted – often with a higher impact when they make claims against someone who is running for elections. For example, the President Trump’s video ads about former vice president Joe Biden – made at a cost of USD 5,000 – have been seen by over 50,000 viewers. They request people to sign a petition to demand an investigation on Biden’s alleged involvement with the Ukraine crisis. Facebook, under its new policy, has refused to remove these ads, despite protests by the Biden campaign office. The Trump administration has spent more than $15.9 million in just 18 months (May 2018 to October 2019) on online ads on Facebook and Google for the upcoming US presidential elections in 2020.

While social media has become one of the most sought out areas for advertisers, social media platforms should not shirk their responsibility of upholding truth since targeted misinformation campaigns influence millions by what they portray. More so, when such ads target young voters with impressionable minds. These uninformed voters are seduced by falsehoods which carry donation links or links to shop for merchandise.

Facebook, with their 2.41 billion active users globally, stands as the world’s top platform for advertisements. Because of its reach to every age group and particularly the youth, political parties of many nations are spending huge sums of money on online ads which may possibly carry false information and propaganda to gain votes.

Increasing transparency

For the general elections in India that took place in the month of May in 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had spent more than ₹10 crore on just Facebook ads. The party has spent ₹ 21.6 lakhs for the Assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand.

Facebook released new privacy policies for their advertisers just a few months before the state elections took place. These policies were supposed to bring transparency through the introduction of two label categories – “paid by” and “published by” – where the identity of the person or entity who created the ad would be visible to the user for all political ads. The advertiser would have to go through a mandatory authorisation process to confirm her/his identity as also of the paymaster if any donation links are added. Facebook also launched an ad library, where users are able to see all the ads posted by a particular political party, how much money is spent on it and which demography is being targeted. Facebook took this stand, after the backlash following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The new policies, Facebook believes, will allow users to know who is targeting them and thus make an independent choice.

Situation in India

The Cable Television Network Rules 1994 disallow broadcast of political advertisements on cable television. But in 2004, the Supreme Court passed an order mandating the approval of all political ads by Election Council of India (ECI) before being broadcast on electronic media. In 2013, the ECI also brought social media under the ambit of this decision. Since any individual or political party would need an approval for their ads, the move prompted Google to change its political advertising policy for India.

In this context, Facebook’s new policy is worrisome. With 303 million users, 114 million of which are in the influential age group of 18-24, targeted false propaganda by any political party can wrongly impact these young voters and potentially alter election results.

The lack of authentic data available for the users to fact check against the unverified claims further aggravates the problems. Data about unemployment rates, farmers’ suicides and government schemes have not been released since 2016. Scenarios about employment are created from Employee’s provident fund Organisation records or the National Pension Scheme data, which include only a section of the population and therefore are incapable of providing accurate nation-wide estimates. Thus, policymakers and different political parties rely only on those sources that provide information that best suits their campaign interests. Against this reality and given the arbitrary privacy policies of social media giants, the user’s right to make informed choices get severely restricted as there is no credible source which will provide them the whole truth.

With Elizabeth Warren proposing to break up Big Tech companies like Facebook and Amazon, Zuckerberg’s policy would make sense. Claiming the elections to be a fair game by not monitoring ads and asking the public to choose could be democratic in his view. But in the post-truth era, to be truly democratic, Facebook and social media in general should take a stand and – like Twitter – put a complete ban on political ads to win more trust of users and regulators. If politicians cannot be forced to ensure correctness, the only way these platforms can be democratic is by not displaying these ads at all. In any case, like Twitter, campaign ads amount to a negligible part of Facebook’s revenue. Out of the $27 billion revenue in 2016, only $81 million were from Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. For the midterm elections in 2018, $284 million were spent on all election ads versus Facebook’s $55 billion in revenue, both of which amount to less than one percent of its revenue. Banning them would be a smarter option without cutting the bottom lines of these social media giants.

Poorvi Bose is a research intern at ORF Mumbai.

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