In the face of undiminishing backlash over a decision to accept money from politicians in exchange for propagating their campaign lies, Facebook has been doubling down, launching its own duplicitous campaign. The aim apparently is to convince the world that Facebook is serving some higher calling, defending the rights of people everywhere to say what they want, when they want.
It’s a useful smokescreen, though it’s not very original. Nearly all politicians, including the droves from whom Facebook accepts money (and to whom it donates and lobbies), use an identical tactic to obscure the meanings behind their words: pointing at flags, founding documents, and so-called fundamental values that, incidentally, happen to fit quite nicely on bumper stickers and yard signs.
“This is a controversial decision,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said of the company’s political ad policy while being interviewed last week, understating the obvious.
“As Mark just said on our earnings call, we’re not doing it because of the money,” she continued, leaning into the full-on bullshit portion of her talking points. “This is less than 1 percent of our revenue, and the revenue is not worth the controversy. But what Mark said is that we believe in free expression. We believe in political speech, and ads can be an important part of that.”
Of course, it’s about the money. Of course it is. One percent of Facebook’s estimated 2020 revenue is more than three-quarters of a billion dollars. Even if revenue drops to “less than 0.5 percent of our revenue next year,” as Sandberg claims, that’s still more than $400 million. The Trump campaign alone has spent more than $21 million over the past year and a half, according to Facebook’s own figures—and we’re still seven months out from selecting his opponent. $21 million is $21 million, no matter how you slice it.
But sure, Facebook is a massive corporation that pulls in tens of billions of dollars each year. Comparatively, this all just a drop in the bucket. But at the same time, Facebook isn’t stupid. It’s not going to take billions and billions of dollars—which is exactly what it stands to rake in over the next decade from political advertising alone—and light it on fire. No one would.
Still, even if it’s not about the actual dollar value Facebook has placed on the falsehoods it’s committed to help peddling, literal money isn’t the only form of currency worth having. Influence—particularly over the president of the United States, or any president really—is worth just as much, if not more, than a vault full of cash. Influence, after all, is just a polite way of saying power—the ability to change and affect someone’s mind; effectively, to control them.
There are politicians who have to tell lies just to stay in the game, and there are politicians who merely bend the truth when it’s convenient. The president clearly falls into the former category. If Facebook did actually reverse course, it’s clear it would spend an inordinate amount of time telling the Trump campaign, and thus the president and the entire Republican Party, “no.”
Let’s look at a Facebook ad purchased by the Trump campaign last night: It claims that the “far left” has “resorted to violence” in an effort to silence “MILLIONS” of his supporters. Who in American exactly is out there using political violence to intimidate “millions” of people? (That’s the definition of terrorism, by the way.) Who knows? The ad doesn’t say. But you can imagine that any fact-checker worth a shit would rate this narrative—targeted primary at middle-age women in Texas—as very, very false.
Anyone who thinks this won’t get out of hand is being naive. There are plenty of politicians who are willing to take advantage of Facebook’s open invitation to lie, whether it’s in an ad or not. Take this one Republican state senator, who last month on Facebook spread this photo and claimed it was Congresswoman Ilhan Omar—who happened to be born four years after it was taken.
In another post, the same politician—North Dakota’s Oley Larsen—referred to Omar as a “terrorist.” But did it fall on Facebook to help clear up this mess? No. In an era of mass political shootings in American, does Larsen’s harassment of Omar obviously puts her life in danger? Probably. Nevertheless, it fell on journalists, and not Facebook, to try and spread the message that it was fake.
To be fair, that’s their job, but Facebook is making that job more and more difficult to perform. It didn’t suspend Larsen’s account. And that’s the same as saying Facebook is ultimately fine with what he did and is free to do it again.
According to Sandberg, that’s because Facebook has principles... or something. The truth is, Facebook doesn’t care about honesty. It places no value in it. And for that reason alone, we shouldn’t believe anything it says either.
Sandberg’s assertion that Facebook supports free expression “across the board,” is also, quite obviously, a lie. Last month, just as one example, it banned certain uses of what it deemed “sexually suggestive” emojis. That’s right. Eggplants, apparently, are the real threat to Facebook’s “community standards,” a term that means whatever Facebook wants it to mean at any given time.
Should Facebook reverse its decision and ban politicians from spreading malicious, even dangerous lies on its platform? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s a much longer conversation and freedom of expression is important. What it definitely shouldn’t be doing is shoveling its users this load of crap about being a defender of civil liberties.
Facebook has many rules banning all kinds of language and imagery that’s protected under the First Amendment, which, CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims, is the inspiration behind Facebook’s political ads policy. All this really tells us is that Mark might’ve learned more during his frequent trips to Washington than we’ve given him credit for.
Lean in, because this is important: It’s all about the goddamn money.