Last week, a New York Times columnist condemned Facebook for adopting a politically neutral ads policy extremely similar to the neutral policy of The New York Times itself.
Liberals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have condemned Facebook for refusing to “fact-check” ads from candidates running for office. President Donald Trump ran an ad accusing former Vice President Joe Biden of protecting his son Hunter Biden’s company in Ukraine. Liberals have insisted the attack in the ad is false, but he claim is debatable.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided against making his platform the arbiter of truth for political ads.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman condemned Zuckerberg and other “internet barons” for ignoring “the weaponization of social media, which is turning our free press into a house of mirrors, where citizens can no longer cognitively discern fact from fiction and make informed judgments essential for democracy.”
“Look at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was questioned last Wednesday at a House hearing by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A.O.C. was trying to grasp why Zuckerberg thinks it’s O.K. for politicians to run political ads that contain obvious lies, as the Trump campaign has already done in a Facebook ad about Biden viewed by some five million Facebook users,” Friedman wrote.
He celebrated AOC pressing Zuckerberg, “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”
Friedman argued that “this is all about money for Zuckerberg, but he disguises his motives in some half-baked theory about freedom of the press — so half-baked that he couldn’t explain it even when he knew he would be asked about it by a congressional committee.”
Friedman’s moral preening notwithstanding, The New York Times has an ad policy remarkably similar to Facebook’s new position. As The Wall Street Journal noted, the Times “Advertising Acceptability Manual” announces that the Times will not fact-check its ads. How shameful!
We believe that the broad principles of freedom of the press confer on us an obligation to keep our advertising columns open to all points of view. Therefore, The New York Times accepts advertisements in which groups or individuals comment on public or controversial issues. We make no judgments on an advertiser’s arguments, factual assertions or conclusions. … We do not verify, nor do we vouch for, statements of purported fact in advocacy/opinion advertisements. We reserve the right, however, to require documentation of factual claims when it is deemed necessary. …
Our stance with regard to the acceptance of political advertisements is the same as it is for the acceptance of opinion advertisements.
Friedman seems blissfully unaware that his own employer is maintaining the same kind of neutral ad policy for which he condemns Facebook.
The Times columnist ends his article by asking Zuckerberg to put Friedman’s understanding of the truth ahead of Facebook’s bottom line.
Just once I’d like to see Zuckerberg look into a camera and say: “I will take Facebook stock down to $1 if that is what it takes to ensure that we’re never again an engine for the perversion of democracy in any country, starting with my own. Facebook is not going to accept any more political ads until we have the resources to fact-check them all.”
I doubt he’ll do that, though, because his priorities are profits and power, and he seems quite ready to hurt American democracy to get them.
Will Friedman encourage his own employer to make the same pledge? Or does he already know that the Times‘s “priorities are profits and power” and that his employer is “ready to hurt American democracy to get them”?
Americans should care about the truth and about preserving Democratic norms. But platforms like Facebook and The New York Times sell ad space to political candidates and campaigns that often accuse one another of lying. When truth claims are debatable, these platforms should not rush to silence political ads, because doing so will appear partisan even if it is not. The kind of neutrality Facebook and the Times have adopted is quite defensible, and columnists like Friedman are condemning it only because it is a convenient cudgel with which to attack Trump.
Unfortunately for Friedman, his stance against Zuckerberg happens to make him a hypocrite.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.