You may want to sit down for this. Politicians lie. No really, they do. They lie to me and you and everyone else, because lying is more useful to them than telling the truth. Not all of them, but a lot of them. This, I hope, is not a terribly controversial thing to say.
However, it is apparently not worth getting upset about. The thing to get upset about is Facebook allowing political advertisements on the platform to include misinformation and lies. In an astonishing twist, Facebook cares more about profits than about being a moral bastion.
This change in policy, which came to light earlier this month, has prompted all manner of pearl-clutching. A host of op-Eds have argued for Facebook to regulate political ads, to label ads with lies in them, or to stop selling them altogether. In the wake of the news, Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren launched a campaign showing how easy it is to lie.
There are echoes of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in all this. During 2016’s Brexit referendum, the Leave campaign targeted undecided voters (gasp) in an attempt to win the vote (swoon). This, in layman’s terms, is called how every election was run anywhere ever. The harvesting of personal data deserves all the scrutiny it gets, but the strategy it helped optimize is as old as democracy itself.
When it comes to Facebook the public can’t be trusted to work things out for themselves, apparently. No-one bats an eyelid at the fact that President Obama used the same agency four years prior, but it’s big news now. It’s hard to escape the sense that for a lot of naysayers this is not about the truth at all; it’s about looking for something to blame when you lose an election.
At the heart of this backlash is the idea that enormous private companies should be trusted to uphold truth and bring about the harmony of all humankind. I hate the amount of lying that goes on in politics, but I don’t trust Facebook to fix that. Corporations don’t care. It’s not in their interests to care. The scolding Zuckerberg is receiving right now is nothing more than an inconvenience to him. Do you know why? Because he doesn’t care either.
What’s more, if Facebook were to fold to the pressure and start regulating political content, who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Just look at major publications like The New York Times ‘correcting’ their reporting of what Hillary Clinton said about Democratic Tulsi Gabbard, despite audio recordings showing they were clearly right in the first place.
You may disagree with me there, but that’s part of the problem. Not everything is black and white, and even the issues that are can be very inconvenient depending on who’s calling the shots. ‘The truth’ is an incredibly valuable thing to control.
The alternative to private regulations is state regulation, which is its own can of worms. Do we really want the government to decide what is acceptable political advertising? Seriously? I’m not sure anyone on the political spectrum can get behind that one.
I voted remain, and if I were American I’d sooner vote Democrat than Republican, but the success of dishonest political ads strikes me as a symptom rather than as a root cause. Trust in mass media is historically low, and there is no quick fix for the deluge of misinformation out there. It requires systemic change, nurturing an environment in which truth can flourish and lies are constantly looking over their shoulders.
Do politicians lie? Yes. Does that muddy the waters of political discourse. Obviously. The problem is not that politicians lie. The problem is that people are not equipped to question them and the media shirks its duty to hold power to account. We are not taught to question, and those who are supposed to do it on our behalf often fail us.
Asking Facebook to tidy up these problems borders on satire. It’s such a narrow response. What about improving education systems, instilling critical thinking at a young age so voters are equipped to call bullshit themselves? What about protecting the rights of working people so they’re not left looking for someone to blame when their jobs are shipped abroad? What about not running gutless campaigns fighting for the status quo? Put a cardboard cutout up against a populist liar and the populist liar will win every time.
The pearl-clutchers don’t seem to want to talk about these things, about the astonishing failures of the state which have allowed this political climate to fester. Resolution awaits behind all manner of messy questions. I don’t claim to have the answers to them, but I’m certain Mark Zuckerberg either.