‘Truth should not be for sale’: inside Facebook’s political influence

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has been criticized for the platform’s policy on political advertisements. Facebook will not be checking political advertisements for misleading information.

Many of us watched the clips on Twitter showing members of the House Financial Services Committee question Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and “robot” — as he is commonly referred to as — talking head of Facebook. The Oct. 23 questioning centered around Facebook’s lack of content fact-checking and regulation, with House members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) taking stabs at the social media site’s shortcomings.

“Social media is a powerful platform for reaching a lot of people and influencing people,” said Niklas Myhr, a professor of digital marketing at Chapman. “It is only a matter of time before politicians realize social media has to be part of a communication strategy.”

Almost 70 percent of Americans use Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center, and are thus subjective to false advertising and information. Facebook’s current political advertisement policy and the use of social media has sparked conversations among politicians ahead of the 2020 elections. The current stance Facebook takes on advertisements is that it exempts politicians from fact-checking, meaning that ads with misleading information can be published on the platform.

“Truth should not be for sale and that is the problem with Facebook,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman. “If Facebook doesn’t have a commitment to vetting ads to ensure the claims made are true, essentially what is going to happen is that the people with the most money and spend the most money will be able to determine the truth.”

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently took a stance against Facebook’s policy. She ran a false advertisement on Facebook Oct. 10, which stated that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump.

“You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not,” the ad reads. “What Zuckerberg has done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform.”

Zuckerberg appeared before Congress Oct. 23 to discuss Libra, a cryptocurrency created by the company, but was questioned by lawmakers over the political advertisement policy.

“It’s antithetical to democracy, which requires an informed public,” Smoller said. “So if you have people who have adopted a set of ideas that are simply not true, it can distort the outcome of our elections.”

Both Smoller and Myhr, who is also known as “The Social Media Professor,” foresee a political campaign that is riddled with opponent smearing.

“We can expect a political campaign that will be full of claims that the other side is lying,” Myhr said. “It’s difficult for the average voter to discern what is going to be true or not and that is a challenge for politicians who want to play fair game.”

Zuckerberg has been criticized not only for Facebook’s stand on political advertisements, but because of reports that he has been holding dinners with conservative thinkers. Some of the individuals reported to have met with Zuckerberg include Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson and Hugh Hewitt, a law professor at the Chapman’s Dale E. Fowler School of Law.

The Panther reached out to Hewitt five times. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“What caused this to become controversial is it came at a time when (Facebook) was basically opening the door for the type of misleading ads that the conservative side had been accused of,” Myhr said. “I don’t think that it would have been controversial to the same extent had it happened a regular year, because he has been meeting with people from the different sides for many years and it was more of a timing thing.”