Earlier this summer, hidden in the midst of an announcement about voter literacy, Facebook announced that it is allowing users to opt out of seeing political ads.
Since the 2016 election, the company has seemingly been caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to political content. CEO Mark Zuckerberg realizes the platform wields enormous power in shaping public opinion and firmly believes that a strong marketplace of ideas is essential to a healthy democracy.
The decision to allow users to control whether or not they see political content is the company’s effort to strike a middle ground between people calling for stronger regulations and those who say that political speech on the platform should not be restricted at all.
Everyone wants to see politicians held accountable for what they say — and I know many people want us to moderate and remove more of their content,” Zuckerberg said in an op-ed announcing the decision. “We have rules against speech that will cause imminent physical harm or suppress voting, and no one is exempt from them. But accountability only works if we can see what those seeking our votes are saying, even if we viscerally dislike what they say.”
The attempt to stake out a middle ground in a complex and polarizing debate is nothing new for Facebook, and the decision to shift responsibility to users drew criticism from multiple sides of the issue.
Some felt it did not go far enough and still leaves room for misinformation to circulate to users who choose to see it, noting that Twitter elected to ban all political ads from its platform.
“There are significant problems with the Facebook ad library, which makes it really difficult to keep on top of what is circulating to even monitor for disinformation in ads, let alone to judge what the impact is with audiences,” Claire Wardle of First Draft, a nonprofit that researches the impact of misinformation in the media, told the New York Times.
The American Association of Political Consultants condemned the decision for a different reason, arguing that allowing users to opt out of legitimate messages from candidates and campaigns would do little to prevent or combat the spread of misinformation on the platform.
At a time when Facebook is considered a primary news source for many Americans, it’s imperative that candidates be allowed to share messages with all potential voters — not just those who choose to see them, the group argues.
“Small, local campaigns with budgets of only a few thousand dollars are the ones that will be hurt the most when voters mute campaigns, thinking only of the presidential race noise,” AAPC said in a statement. “With the decline of local journalism, voters may never hear the arguments from both sides if they opt out.”
Despite the growing pressure, Zuckerberg has not given any indication that Facebook will change this policy between now and November’s election.
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