Don’t make Zuck a censor

Facebook is taking flak for refusing to police the political ads it sells for truthfulness. That’s absurd. And how effective are those ads, anyway?

I’m no fan of the platform. It’s aesthetically unpleasing. More importantly, it has had a lot to do with the destruction of local newspapers. And I’m leery of what David Courtwright has called “limbic capitalism” that preys on our propensity to addiction. 

No question, Mark Zuckerberg is a limbic capitalist. He aims to hook us on our screens to that he can tap into our particulars like a cyber vampire and sell them to anyone who wants to manipulate us. Of course, we have only ourselves to blame for letting him get his teeth into our necks. Facebook is free for a reason, but also optional.

It is precisely because the Zuckerberg I’ve watched testifying before Congress looks to have undergone a lobotomy of the soul that I would not want to assign him, his creatures or algorithms the task of deciding between the acceptability or otherwise of political speech. 

Put it out there and let us be the judge. That’s what the Founders had in mind. They did not confine protection of speech to the true kind. This would a pretty monosyllabic republic had they done so.

Of course, the Founders never imagined politicians targeting lies with the accuracy made possible by Facebook. But when has matching sales pitch to audience not been an essential element of vote-getting. And it is not as though we can’t see what candidates are feeding their discrete audiences.

On Tuesday, for example, the Trump campaign, deluged its marks with invitations to take what it called “The Democrat Corruption Accountability Survey” featuring 10 questions along the lines of “Do you believe Joe Biden’s corruption in Ukraine should disqualify him from being president?” 

To share your answer with Trump you had also to share your postal code and email. That would presumably discourage those who saw the premise of the survey for what it was — a lie — from hitting submit. But it would also reap a harvest of usefully idiotic contacts for the campaign.

Another Facebook ad blitz the same day featured pictures of worried looking puppies and kittens. Thanks to Trump, their lives supposedly were about to improve. Caption: “Enough is enough. Cruelty to animals is now a federal crime thanks to President Trump! Add your name to show you stand with President Trump against abuse in the United States TODAY”.

Trump did sign a bipartisan animal cruelty bill last year but to call the notorious germophobe an an animal lover is a stretch, especially when Don Jr. is out potting rare Mongolian sheep for sport. But as long as it’s done transparently, I’ll defend Trump’s right to misrepresent himself on Facebook, if not with my life at least in my penultimate Business Day column..

Want to see who’s advertising how and what they’re spending? Visit the Facebook ads library and type in Trump or any other candidate’s name. It’s not the easiest dashboard to navigate but it does tell you in which states each iteration of an ad is being seen and how many eyeballs it has flashed past. 

What it does not do, presumably quite deliberately, is provide enough information to let you easily correlate ads with voting results. For that you would need a much more granular picture of the demographic target criteria selected for each ad.

Why would Facebook be coy with such data? Perhaps because it would reveal too much about whether Facebook ads are really the political game changer Zuckerberg adviser Andrew Bosworth boasted they were in a “leaked” December 30 memo to colleagues. It wasn’t Russia or Cambridge Analytica’s “garbage” that got Trump elected in 2016, he said. It was Facebook and “the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen.”

That’s an ad salesman speaking in a year when election spending will shatter records.

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