Over all, Facebook has no incentive to stop carrying political ads. Its revenue keeps growing despite a flurry of scandals and mistakes. So its leaders would lose little by being straight with the public about its limitations and motives. But they won’t. They will continue to defend their practices in disingenuous ways until we force them to change their ways.
We should know better than to demand Facebook’s leaders to do what is not in the best interest of the company. Instead, citizens around the world should demand effective legislation that can curb Facebook’s power.
The key is to limit data collection and the use of personal data to ferry ads and other content to discrete segments of Facebook users — the very core of the Facebook business model.
This task would be easier in some countries than others. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution severely limits policy options in America. But here’s something Congress could do: restrict the targeting of political ads in any medium to the level of the electoral district of the race. Tailoring messages for African-American voters, men or gun enthusiasts would still be legal, as this rule would not govern content. But people not in those groups would see those tailored messages as well and could learn more about their candidates. This law would apply not just to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also to all targeted ads delivered via cable boxes or devices.
Currently, two people in the same household can receive different ads from the same candidate running for state senate. That means a candidate can lie to one or both voters and they might never know about the other’s ads. This data-driven obscurity limits accountability and full deliberation.
If the same political ads were to reach everyone in a state, district or even country, they would not just appeal to marginal constituencies, might not tend toward extremism, and could not get away with lies quite so easily. Journalists, citizens and political opponents would see the same ads and could respond to them. A reason to be concerned about false claims in ads is that Facebook affords us so little opportunity to respond to ads not aimed at us personally. This proposal would limit that problem.
The overall regulatory goal should be to install friction into the system of targeted digital political ads. This process would not be easy, as political incumbents and powerful corporations that sell targeted ads (not just Facebook and Google, but also Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and The New York Times, for example) are invested in the status quo.
But the conversation must start at the recognition that these powerful, global companies have no need to pander to our complaints and no incentive to do business any other way. We can’t expect corporate leaders to do anything but lead their corporations. We can’t expect them to be honest with us, either. We must change their businesses for them so they stop undermining our democracies.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.”
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