JOHN TAN. Zuckerberg is right, isn’t he?

Jan 17, 2020

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly under intense pressure in the US to curb political advertisements on its pages. Who might be running such a campaign and for what reasons? Perhaps the answer lies in the gap between rhetoric and reality.

One rationale advanced is that some ads have been false or misleading. As if there’s anything new about false political ads in new media, or for that matter, in traditional media. There is no clear difference between political advertising and advocacy. To try to ban one and not the other is fraught with accusations of bias. And surely, no one is contemplating banning advocacy. Similarly, one person’s fake is another’s truth. It is unsafe to give anyone the power to decide what is true.

Quite a few other issues come to mind. Free speech rights in the US Constitution are there for a very good reason. So no-one gets to say what has less right to be heard. Not any government censor, or any other censor appointed by anyone, including Facebook itself. To abridge that constitutional right is in effect to abridge democracy.

If Facebook caved in to the pressure and stopped taking political advertisements, all those rivers of gold of political advertising could go to US traditional media, a rather nice outcome for the moguls and corporates who own them. Can it be said that they are perhaps trying to narrow the competition? Should this debate be cast in the frame of traditional media under financial pressure vs rising new media? Is it a coincidence that it seems to be traditional media that is running this campaign of censorship? And it may be added that US traditional media are not without sin when it comes to unbalanced and uncritical reporting.

Then, there’s the definition of political ads. Facebook’s definition includes ads “about any election, referendum or ballot initiative, including “go out and vote” or election campaigns”.

Facebook’s explicit inclusion of “go out and vote” material as political is perhaps key. Presumably all the other platforms would have the same definition. The US does not have compulsory voting so campaigns rely heavily on getting out the vote for less engaged voters, who very often are dependent on social media. Angry voters who choose to make the sometimes arduous trip to the ballot station are key to outcomes, so “go out and vote” messages from advertisers are pivotal. Can it be said that this anti-Facebook campaign may also be trying to keep disengaged voters from engaging?

Twitter, which has already agreed to ban political ads, defines them broadly as referencing “a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.”

And then there’s giant Google which, with Google maps and YouTube, may be said to know most about their users’ deepest habits and inclinations than any other media. And their algorithms are best placed to deliver straight and subliminal advertising to target users.

Google has said it will ban such ads. But there’s a catch in Google’s policy, a caveat. It says: “Google’s new limitations on political advertisements won’t stop digital strategists from buying on their properties. Political advertisers can still buy Google ad inventory through third-party platforms that allow for some of the targeting capabilities Google’s new policy blocks on the rest of its service”

Its website also says: “A Google spokesperson confirmed that any of its inventory bought through a third-party DSP (demand-side platform) would be subject to that platform’s targeting and transparency standards, rather than Google’s itself.

“That means even though Google has a hand in serving the ad, it won’t show up in its transparency report and could include deeper levels targeting than Google will allow elsewhere on its services.”

In plain words, there are ways to get around the ban, but you have to persuade an approved third-party DSP to carry it on Google. So the final say, the censorship decision so to speak, will lie with the DSPs, who it appears are the large firms in the advertising industry who buy ad space in bulk on behalf of corporates, and who therefore command much attention from media organisations.

Another issue is whether Facebook should stop ads targeted at a particular demographic. What Facebook is doing is not different in principle to ads during particular TV time slots or programmes aimed at a certain demographic. So why should it be treated differently? And anyway, Google’s policy will not stop such ads.

The social media community is so vibrant simply because it is essentially anarchic. Every user has the capacity to be a citizen journalist. Users are free to migrate to another platform whenever they like, free mostly of national boundaries and laws. Gone are the days when they had to read a newspaper or tune in to a broadcast to get what an editor has decided they should be informed about.

If Facebook or anyone else is thought to be filtering speech, users will quickly lose trust; the brand would be damaged; the business model will fail.

In today’s political world, there are quite a few unhappy voters who think “populist”. These are the people who brought in Trump. And to stretch a point, perhaps the people who refused to shake Scott Morrison’s hand. They communicate and organise on new media.

One recalls too that social media played a big part in organising protest movements around the world, including famously in Hongkong. This media represents a clear threat to unpopular established powers.

Can it be that we may see a day when new media sites here are censored; not only for violent content, for incitement to violence, for “hate” speech, for carrying illegal content, for being contrary to society standards, all of which is happening to some extent already, either voluntarily or involuntarily; but more broad censorship of material that the establishment disapproves of?

(The writer was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore)

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