Fact-Checking Politicians on Social Media

Kavya Gupta and Ankita Acharya

Social media campaigns have taken a significant precedent in present-day politics. As the field becomes more divided, the long-debated question of the reach of the First Amendment takes a forefront once again.

America is a democracy, and as such, the majority of our politicians are chosen based on the preferences of all voters. Politicians running for office expand their voter reach through campaigning, both in-person and online. However, dating back to the 2016 presidential election, undue international influence and false information have affected the way the general public votes. As the 2020 election approaches, social media platforms are beginning to address the problem of false or manipulative political ads.

Twitter’s new advertising policy prevents any political ads from being run, therefore avoiding the spread of misinformation. However, this brings up the ethical dilemma that high-ranking celebrities and office-holders may use their enormous reach to discredit low-ranking politicians or deceive voters with false information. As a result, the aforementioned politicians will be unable to access the same demographic with advertising campaigns. Twitter will, however, allow ads on social issues such as abortion and gun control, although they will be subject to restrictions on targeting or promoting particular legislation. They now struggle to clearly define the qualifications of a political ad.

On the other hand, Facebook will continue to distribute political ads without fact-checking. In founder Mark Zuckerberg’s words, to fact-check these ads would be to “censor politicians.”

Both of these decisions have sparked an onslaught of criticisms and concerns, but the two primary questions that result from these include: Does the ban of all political messages qualify as a violation of free speech? And, do social media platforms have a responsibility to advertise truthful messages to their users?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Banning political advertising on social media platforms can be likened to a form of censorship as it silences the voices of our country’s decision-makers and reduces the range of perspectives that reach viewers. In this era of fragmentation and heightened media choice, the role of digital advertising is monumental in distinguishing between one candidate from another and navigating public opinion. It also has the distinct ability to reach out to young voters, converting them to activists and donors and mobilizing them on Election Day.

In any election, voters tend to select their candidates based on party affiliation and ideology. For established elites such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, voters understand exactly what policies they are supporting when they vote for them. Candidates such as these tend to advertise with well-known slogans that are more generalized since voters learn about their policies through broad media coverage. Smaller politicians lack this advantage and must aim for policy recognition by attempting to reach more American people through advertising on media platforms. These ads are essential not only to the candidates but the democratic process as well, as information leads to well-advised voting. Twitter’s restriction of any form of political advertising whatsoever cuts off a dominant source of publicity for politicians who are not their parties’ frontrunners and therefore hurts voters and the election process.

As the complete opposite, Facebook is hurting the election process with its blanket allowance of all political ads. Recently, the Trump administration ran an ad on Facebook with discredited allegations against the former vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden, specifically about his relationship with Ukraine. Despite Biden’s request to remove the ad, Facebook refused, claiming the ad did not violate its policies. Zuckerberg argues that fact-checking political ads equates to restricting the free speech of these politicians.

However, maintaining a certain level of accuracy is not equivalent to censorship in any way. Accuracy is key to informed voting: a voter who chooses their candidate based off of false information is dishonest to themselves and American democracy. When Facebook refuses to fact-check any political ads, they open the door to falsehoods and misleading information. This can range anywhere from false statistics to slander about political opponents.

Furthermore, the failure to fact-check sets the precedent that politicians are allowed to lie, as it affords them this ability starting at the beginning of their political campaign. As the people who lead our country, politicians should be held to the highest standard of honesty without any leeway being made, especially not when they campaign for office.

As for the argument for the impracticality of fact-checking on a large scale, Snapchat has been successfully ensuring the integrity of all political advertising on their platform for years. They even have a team devoted to doing so, one that should be even easier to create for social giants like Facebook. The feasibility of the creation of such a unit may contribute to both Twitter and Facebook’s failure to address the situation. Still, it does not present itself as a valid concern.

Political ads are a vital part of democracy. Private social media platforms have the legal right to allow or ban any ads they wish to, so the current debate falls on the ethicality of any decisions that are made. Facebook and Twitter are on two extremes and fail to meet the ideal approach: allowance of political ads as long as they are factually accurate.