How Social Media Platforms Decide What Makes An Ad Political

Nov 6, 2019
Originally published on November 6, 2019 4:50 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Facebook and Twitter find themselves on opposite ends of a debate over political ads - whether to host them, whether to fact-check them. Twitter announced last week it's out - no more political ads on the site. Facebook responded saying it will continue to distribute such ads, and no fact-checking.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. And in a piece for The New York Times, he wades right into this debate, including the central question of what makes an ad political in the first place.

Professor Vaidhyanathan, welcome.

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here. Thank you very much.

KELLY: So you pose this question in your piece for the Times. What is not political? There's obviously clear-cut campaign ads, the ones that end with, I'm Joe Biden, and I approve this ad. But you make the point it gets murky really, really fast.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah. I mean, imagine that there is an ad campaigning for a carbon tax or supporting candidates, in general, who might support a carbon tax.

KELLY: Sounds political.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Sounds political, right. And, in fact, that hits the center of how Twitter defines a political ad. Twitter is very concerned about not just the sort of campaign ads that are more easily identified but also what are generally known as issue ads, so the NRA buying an ad or the Sierra Club buying an ad for its particular issue at a given point.

You know, university organizations and think tanks and journalistic organizations have been flagged by Facebook as political organizations merely because they discuss issues of public policy.

KELLY: Yeah. It gets to the point of what is political and what is an individual or entity advancing an agenda, which almost anybody with an ad would be advancing an agenda, even if it's just, buy me.

VAIDHYANATHAN: And then to get deeper, as people have been asking for Facebook to determine what is true and what is not, it seems like an almost absurd request.

KELLY: But let me push back on a couple points here. One is Twitter says it's doing it. Twitter isn't banning all ads; it's just banning political ads. How are they able to do it and Facebook says it's not?

VAIDHYANATHAN: Just because Twitter says it's going to do it doesn't mean that Twitter will accomplish that goal. We are going to see over the next few years a few cases in which some organization is trying to buy an ad on Twitter, is going to get blocked for being political, is going to say, wait; we're not political. And those are the false positives. We're also going to see false negatives.

KELLY: Here's another question, which brings us back to Facebook and the defense that Facebook has offered for its position. They've made a big platform about free speech...

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...That private companies shouldn't censor in a democracy.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah. You got to expect a corporation to do anything but talk about its inability to pursue some goal. No one working for Facebook is going to stand up and say, we're not really good at this. But the fact is they're really not good at that. Facebook has grown so big so fast it is impossible to govern at this point.

KELLY: So you argue that one solution that perhaps more realistic than asking Facebook to drop political ads would be asking Facebook to change the way it delivers certain ads to certain users, ensuring that, say, everyone in the same state sees the same ads. Just explain your proposal here.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah, I wouldn't be asking; I'd be telling. What I would like is for the U.S. Congress and a few other legislatures around the world to change the way that Facebook targets political ads. The problem is that we can't even expose the lies or discuss the lies or talk about what information and claims our political candidates are making to us.

KELLY: If we're all seeing different ads.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Exactly. We don't all see the same ads. You only see what comes across to you, as opposed to if we're all sitting around, my family's sitting around watching television one night and a political campaign ad comes up, everyone in the room sees the ad, and we can discuss how it hits us and whether it's misleading us or whether it makes good points. That kind of conversation and that kind of interrogation and ultimate accountability can't happen with Facebook ads.

KELLY: So bottom line - political ads that are factually inaccurate are not going anywhere, no matter what platform we're on. They're here to stay.

VAIDHYANATHAN: The idea of politicians lying is older than Machiavelli. It's older than Aristotle. I don't think we're going to solve that problem anytime soon.

KELLY: Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia, thanks so much for joining us.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Thank you.

KELLY: And we should note Facebook is among NPR's recent financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.