On Thursday, Facebook made a stunning announcement regarding the use of political ads on its platforms. Despite a widespread pressure campaign, the social media giant declared it would not be banning or further limiting political ads, citing the important principles of free speech and open debate.
The news immediately set off enraged left-wing activists and media figures (but I repeat myself), who accused Facebook of “allowing lies” on its site and even “screwing democracy.” Amid the hysteria, however, one could sense perhaps a tinge of fear — fear of a loss of control over the growing power of social media.
Up until this week, pro-censorship progressive elites had been frighteningly successful in pushing Silicon Valley to shut down political debate. In October of last year, for example, Twitter announced that it would no longer be allowing any political ads on its platform, succumbing to similar pressure over the supposed grave threat posed by misleading ads.
But more notably, a couple weeks later Google also declared it would be limiting political ads by banning the use of “microtargeting,” or the delivery of messages to very specific audiences. In doing so, Google sided with the rich and powerful — those who can afford to broadcast messages to much larger populations — over those with limited resources and less influence. Given Google’s significant reach, it also fundamentally changed the political game.
Although microtargeting has become a buzzword in modern American politics, political operatives have been doing it for decades via selective door knocking, phone calls, targeted mail pieces, etc. And with the advent of digital advertising, microtargeting has become an effective way for those with fewer resources to strategically communicate with voters and compete against those with huge campaign war chests. Microtargeting is how David beats Goliath. And it happens over and over again every election cycle.
But there are plenty of those who do not want to see a level playing field: namely, the progressive elite. Microtargeting poses a direct threat to them because they already control the primary messaging media. They want to maintain their supremacy, and they’ve been desperate in pushing Big Tech companies to help them do so. It’s no surprise then that they’ve directed so much intense ire at Facebook — the company they blame the most for the election of Donald Trump.
Following Google’s policy change, Facebook faced tremendous political pressure to follow suit in banning microtargeting. Many speculated that the company would do just that. But on Thursday, in a statement, Facebook rejected calls to dramatically change its ads policy:
Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies… We have based our [policies] on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.
Indeed, while Facebook is expanding transparency measures and allowing people to know what ads are being targeted at them — a perfectly reasonable policy — the company also seems to be withstanding the criticism and taking seriously the important role it plays in modern American politics.
Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, often refers to his platform as a digital equivalent of a “town square.” He’s right to do that. Big Tech platforms like Facebook and Google have in essence replaced the modern town square.
After all, where are you more likely to have a political conversation? A Facebook post or the Post Office?
Thus, even on these privately owned platforms, where our most sacred freedoms are allegedly not guaranteed, it is still important and necessary to defend them. If speech (even in the form of paid advertisements) is banned online, where the vast majority of political conversation now takes place, it is effectively banned everywhere.
There’s no doubt Facebook will face criticism for taking a principled stand on this issue. But kudos to the social network for recognizing how important a free and open debate really is — and for standing up for what makes America great.
Jon Schweppe (@JonSchweppe) is the director of government affairs at American Principles Project, a nonprofit think tank and political advocacy organization committed to defending the fundamental American principle of human dignity. American Principles Project does not receive any funding from Facebook.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.