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OPINION

Twitter’s move at least beats Facebook’s shrug

By MARGARET SULLIVAN | The Washington Post | Published: November 1, 2019

It’s always hazardous to ascribe motivations of altruism to a tech titan.

They are driven by many things — mostly money, power and avoiding regulation — and if what’s right for society enters into their thinking, it’s probably an afterthought. (Anand Giridharadas, for good reason, coined the felicitous phrase “side hustle of virtue.”)

Still, it was heartening to see what Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to do Wednesday: to cut out a part of his business that he realizes he can’t control — namely, political advertising.

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” Dorsey wrote on his favorite platform.

The move, which will take effect soon, is relatively painless for Dorsey. Those ads bring in only an estimated $3 million a year.

But Dorsey’s decision seems to come, at least in part, from the recognition of what social media platforms — especially the much larger and more influential Facebook — did to American politics in the 2016 election.

The virulent disinformation that circulated on these platforms tainted the election, and there’s every reason to think it will happen again in the coming year. In fact, it’s happening already.

Since it’s nearly impossible to police every political ad — among, potentially, millions of them — for truthfulness, Dorsey decided to get out of the game altogether.

And in doing so, he pointed an accusing finger at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, showing that he’s mastered the fine art of subtweeting (that is, clearly referring to, without naming, someone). To wit, Dorsey wrote:

“It’s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad ... well ... they can say whatever they want!’ ”

I tried to pin down Zuckerberg about this very point last week at a Manhattan gathering where he announced that Facebook would start paying some news organizations for their journalism, since it’s so valuable to the common good.

My point was: If you care so much about journalism and truth, how can you allow so much malicious bilge to be published?

But he shut down the question, saying it wasn’t what we were there to talk about.

I disagree: The connection is germane.

There’s an important tie between truthful advertising and the First Amendment issues that directly affect journalism.

The 1964 Supreme Court decision in Times v. Sullivan hinged on factual errors in a printed newspaper ad. The court’s decision has formed the basis of many a successful legal defense of journalists.

There’s little doubt that Facebook and other social media companies (including the Google-owned cesspool, YouTube) have the legal right to publish what they do. They have the same free-speech protections that journalists rely on, thanks in part to that landmark decision.

And Zuckerberg makes the free-speech case at every opportunity.

I find it to be off-target. Free speech is protected, yes, but that shouldn’t make straight-up lies and slander about political opponents acceptable fare on media outlets — which these platforms certainly have become.

It’s become an even hotter topic after President Donald Trump’s campaign recently bought ads across social media that accused Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of corruption in Ukraine — falsely stating that the former vice president offered $1 billion to Ukrainian officials to get rid of a prosecutor investigating Biden’s son, Hunter.

That ad was viewed more than 5 million times on Facebook. Then, another Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, upped the ante by taking out an ad on Facebook falsely stating that Zuckerberg was backing Trump’s reelection (and then saying it wasn’t true).

“See how you like it,” was Warren’s none-too-subtle message — but Facebook hasn’t budged.

Twitter’s move is an imperfect one — and far from universally heralded. Ryan Grim of the Intercept pointed out Wednesday that Twitter ads have allowed lesser-known political candidates, without big-money funding, to build their followings.

Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, called it “another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives.” (As if.)

But let’s face it. With these platforms’ immense power and reach comes huge responsibility. Maybe there’s a better way to deal with the onslaught of political lies other than shutting down these social-media advertising avenues altogether.

Other solutions might be better, but they are elusive because of the overwhelming size of the problem: How do you fact-check a tsunami?

Twitter’s CEO seemed to be acknowledging that with his decision.

However pure or impure his motivations may be, Dorsey deserves credit for doing something other than keeping his palm outstretched.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.

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