Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey struck a needed blow for tech integrity and democracy recently when he said that the social networking company would pull the plug on political advertisements.
If only Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would see the light.
For decades tech companies were renowned for embracing the highest standards of business ethics and respecting the needs of their customers.
Zuckerberg has arguably done more in the last decade to destroy public trust in tech than any CEO in Silicon Valley history.
His stubborn refusal to vet political ads for accuracy threatens the integrity of our elections – and those of countries around the world – and the future of democracy. If that wasn’t enough, Zuckerberg continues to line his pockets by invading the privacy of Facebook’s 2.4bn users. Bill Hewlett and David Packard must be spinning in their graves. Zuckerberg may have a fortune of nearly $70bn, but history will not treat him kindly.
Even Facebook employees are appalled. The New York Times recently published a letter sent to Zuckerberg by 250 Facebook employees in which they said, “Misinformation affects us all,” and “Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that Dorsey timed his announcement minutes before Zuckerberg made an earnings call that showed Facebook’s financial performance exceeded analysts’ expectations.
“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey also tweeted: “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
No one knows how much misinformation played a role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. At first, Zuckerberg claimed there was no effect. But, as evidence poured out, Zuckerberg apologised after admitting in 2017 that Russian operatives used Facebook to spread divisive messages by purchasing at least 3,000 ads on its site.
Zuckerberg wrote on his personal Facebook page, “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”
Really? If so, it’s hard to tell.
Zuckerberg tried to defend Facebook’s policy of allowing false political ads by saying he didn’t “think it right for private companies to censor politicians and the news.”
That puts Facebook in the position of knowingly joining forces for financial gain with those spreading lies and misinformation for political gain. Separating fact from fiction in political ads is time-consuming work, but it’s a basic responsibility for those who publish them. If Zuckerberg is not prepared to do the work, he should stop accepting the ads.
Zuckerberg is right when he says that political ads make up less than 0.5% of Facebook’s revenues, or roughly $300mn. But, while that might not be a lot of money to the billionaire, it’s nearly half of all the money candidates have raised so far in the presidential election.
He’s also correct when he says other companies, including Google-owned YouTube, publish false or misleading political ads. But that doesn’t make it right. That others do it is a pathetic excuse for Facebook, especially given the company’s record of enabling political manipulation.
A day of reckoning awaits Facebook and other tech companies if they fail to get ahead of basic integrity issues that threaten long-held American values. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey took a step in the right direction. The question is to what degree will others – especially Facebook – follow?
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