By Anu Shetty
The following article was featured in the December 2019 edition of The Campus.
Recounting back to his first semester of college, during the midst of the 2016 presidential election, Jacob Schwartz, a current senior at The City College of New York, recalls the various poorly photoshopped political posts on Facebook depicting some candidates as the devil, determined to destroy democracy. As someone who consumes a decent amount of news through various social media platforms, Schwartz describes, “It was hard to avoid people sharing those posts with their firmly stated opinions attached.”
The role of social media in the lives of Americans has changed drastically over the last few decades. Formerly intended as an online platform to connect with and share posts with friends and family all over the world, the most popular social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have taken on the role as outlets to connect people with political figures and obtain national and local news.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, 67% of Facebook users and 71% of Twitter users say they receive news from these respective sites. Of those, the percentages of 18-26-year-old’s that use the sites as a news source are 26% for Facebook and 33% for Twitter.
Historically speaking, the 18-26-year-old age group is least likely to vote, though it is true that their participation in the 2018 midterm election had increased over 15% from the last midterm election in 2014. As one of the main channels of news for the younger portion of America’s voting demographic, social media companies have taken different approaches to manage the content people are able to see on their sites.
On October 30th, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, announced in a series of tweets the company’s decision to stop all political advertising, whether it be from a specific candidate or a message regarding a political issue, on its social media platform. Dorsey acknowledged the way that the company’s past policies had allowed paid advertisements to target groups of people that might otherwise have not come into contact with such information, and recounts the importance of choice in social media. He defends his position by stating, “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”
Dorsey rebutted claims that the decision would help the incumbent by emphasizing the number of small movements that have reached a national scale without having paid advertising. His announcement concluded by emphasizing that his decision did not have to do with freedom of speech, but with paid reach. He stated that paid political reach can have unforeseen consequences that today’s democracy is not prepared for and that regulators need to be proactive in their attempts to provide equal opportunity for all candidates.
The decision comes after much debate over the role of companies in censoring paid political advertisements, an outlet that has been known to spread disingenuous information and sway the tides in past political elections. Twitter and other major social media networks, such as Facebook and YouTube, have been under scrutiny for the critical role their platforms played in fostering the Russian campaign to bollix the 2016 presidential election.
The stance that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken has received intense criticism from many politicians, including Elizabeth Warren, who has singled out Zuckerberg’s passive approach to the issue. Warren’s campaign purchased a Facebook advertisement falsely claiming that Zuckerberg and Facebook are endorsing President Trump’s reelection, in an effort to call out his apathy by allowing Facebook to be a “disinformation-for-profit” machine.
Zuckerberg has since defended his position by invoking the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and agreeing with the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to not let companies censor speech, but to instead let voters decide.
Like many others attempting to make sense of the contentious topic, R. B. Bernstein, a pre-law and political science professor at the City College of New York’s Skadden Program, seems to be torn. He states, “Sometimes the problem looks as if we have to make a distinction between people using speech to carry on the debate, to express or advocate ideas, or to challenge other people’s ideas, as opposed to people using speech to injure other people, to cause damage, or to cause harm. But how do we draw that distinction, and how do we make it work?”
While Zuckerberg acknowledges that some of the advertisements are spreading misinformation, he claims that they are still newsworthy and deserving of public discourse. The major issue with this claim is the amount of “firehosing” done on such sites. “Firehosing,” a term coined by Rand researchers reporting on Russian propaganda tactics, means pushing out as many lies as often as possible to overwhelm the public and make it impossible to continually disprove them.
Though concerns over firehosing, freedom of speech, and paid political reach are inundating the conversation, it is hard to predict how long it will be before people see, if at all, the impacts the CEOs’ decisions will have. Dorsey’s new policy will go into effect on November 22nd, just two days after the fifth democratic presidential debate.
For now, everyone is going to have to patiently wait, as even the legal experts amongst us are unsure of how the events will unfold. Exasperated, Berstein looks at the ongoing fight and states, “I have studied the Constitution my whole life and I do not know what to say.”