Facebook should take responsibility for the false advertising on its website.

The difference between a lie and the truth on the internet has become more and more blurred. Political lenses, varying sources, polarization and social media are all involved, though to what extent, the world can only guess. However, if it’s known that an outlet is repeatedly spreading false information, it’s in the best interest of the general public and democracy to stop. Enter Facebook. 

It can occasionally be difficult to identify false information at first sight. The truth could be exaggerated, or an aspect of the whole truth might be ignored. Nevertheless, there’s still fake information that’s easy to identify. For example, Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the 2020 presidency, recently intentionally submitted a false ad to Facebook stating Mark Zuckerberg supports Trump in order to prove Facebook isn’t ready for the 2020 election. 

In defense of Warren, the impact social media and false advertising on the 2016 election is still unknown, leaving much room for concern. However, there’s evidence that political advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook were successful at convincing undecided voters to vote for Trump by a minimum of five percentage points, according to Phys.org. This was accomplished through a strategy called microtargeting — specifically targeting users by known characteristics such as political leanings, gender and region. 

While microtargeting is frightening, its core issue is the intentional spread of false information. Although Facebook isn’t the only website spreading fake news, it’s often the tool utilized by politicians who wish to. Zuckerberg made an interesting argument in his over 40-minute speech at Georgetown. He said that Facebook is essentially a microphone for the people to spread all different types of opinions — but there’s a significant difference between an opinion and an unsubstantiated claim. Opinions don’t involve lies or incorrect information. Rather, they’re merely a perspective based off the facts of a situation as well as one’s personal background. The entire speech sounds like Zuckerberg attempting to shrug off Facebook’s responsibility instead placing the blame solely on the politicians creating the ads. The reality is that it’s both easier and cheaper for Facebook to defend its position rather than begin censoring fake ads.

Facebook claims its policies of allowing and not fact-checking false ads are in the best interest of the freedom of speech. Although not explicitly stated in the Constitution, it’s widely known that freedom of speech isn’t without its limits. For example, a school can suspend a student for using violent or explicit language, thanks to ⁠Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986). Since fake news has the means to intentionally sway the public’s opinion on political matters and candidates from false pretenses, it’s possible it couldn’t qualify for protection under freedom of speech. The key here is one word: intent.

Politicians are intentionally utilizing misinformation to sway the public and benefit their political agenda. This can be compared to Supreme Court cases that have ruled based on intent of free speech, such as in Debs v. United States (1919), which ruled that anti-war speech was intentionally preventing recruiting efforts. 

Zuckerberg is merely taking advantage of the vague and brief language used to describe the freedom of speech. While spreading false advertising may in fact be protected by the Constitution under the freedom of speech, it is certainly harmful to the country. In other words, just because someone can do something doesn’t necessarily mean they should. 

Fake news ultimately benefits politicians who profit off a misinformed and uninformed public

Facebook has the resources and capabilities to be more than a microphone for the public and to protect the general population from intentional harm spread on its platform. Deciding what to censor, what to allow and what method of flagging to use isn’t an easy or simple decision, but it’s a necessary one. For the common good of the public and America’s democracy, Zuckerberg owes the world a safe and accurate platform. 

Allie Boulier is a freshman biology major. Contact Allie at boulieas@dukes.jmu.edu.