Freedom of Expression versus Disinformation: Don’t Allow the Latter to Happen in the Name of the First

Mark Zuckerberg’s latest stance refusing to fact-check political ads on Facebook has drawn significant criticism, even his own employees. He said that his decision is to support freedom of expression and that people can decide for themselves whether believe or not to believe what political advertisements include. His understanding of the freedom of expression is wrong.

If Facebook can learn anything from its past mistakes, it should be that allowing disinformation can have significant influence on politics and threaten democracy around the world. Zuckerberg’s decision not to have Facebook fact check political ads on its platform suggest that both Zuckerberg and his right-hand executive, Sheryl Sandberg, have not learn anything at all.

Facebook has long faced criticism for the “filter bubble” its algorithm, which which manipulates people’s decisions. The term was coined by Eli Pariser, an Internet activist. It simply means an algorithm learns about personal information and online behavior and decides what the person should be exposed to. If a person likes one particular political party or one particular candidate, engages in discussion about them or interact with posts from that candidate or party, the content this person is most likely to see on his or her newsfeed would be about the party and the candidate. The algorithm understands that such information would suit his or her best interests.

This function can work when it comes to personalized ads. However, when it is about political affairs, it can put civic space and democracy at risk. Users may become exposed to false and potentially harmful information. Disinformation can false impressions of the candidate or party that the person likes, making them appear more attractive than they actually are. It can also discredit opponents by perpetuating false information about them. If Facebook does not want to fact-check the political ads running on its platform, this can be a major problem for political systems that depend on information, deliberation, and participation by citizens.

Cambridge Analytica was able to manipulate people’s decisions in two major events by using Facebook’s platforms. They were the 2016 US Presidential Election and Brexit. Cambridge Analytica sent Facebook users a quiz. Except that unbeknownst to users, the quiz was not only a quiz. It was a medium for the company to learn about the person’s personal information as well as their preferences. The company then targeted undecided voters—whom they termed “the persuadables”—using Facebook’s algorithms to manipulate these individuals with disinformation that contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.

Freedom of expression is that individuals can express their ideas and opinions freely but without deliberately causing harm to others’ character and/or reputation through false or misleading statements. That Zuckerberg decided that Facebook is not going to fact check political ads citing freedom of expression is wrong. There is strong evidence that the ads can be harmful. It poses a risk to civic space as well as democracy, as a result.

Zuckerberg said that revenue from political ads made only small portion of the company’s entire revenue. This can be interpreted as claiming that Facebook is politically neutrality. Whether company leans toward far-right political ideas, however, remains in question. The company announced in the beginning of May 2019 that it partnered with Check Your Fact. The latter a subsidiary of the Daily Caller, a right-wing website whose many writers are known to support white nationalists.

What the company decides to do might affect not only the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election but also other elections around the world. In many Southeast Asia nations, Facebook has a very influential role and for some — it is the Internet itself. Myanmar and Singapore will have a general election coming up soon, it can be worrisome on how the company’s decision on what to do with political ads can affect the events.

Given the limited resources, digital political ads can be a better choice, especially for independent candidates. It can provide disproportionate advantage in political systems that already do not offer an even playing field. This is because digital ads can give political parties and entities with better opportunities to reach out to people and less costs compared to other platforms. Banning political ads will completely remove this advantage. If Facebook would really like to support freedom of expression, fact-checking efforts can be a better option.

As one of the largest social media platforms in the world, Facebook can do better than this. Zuckerberg and Sandberg should learn from the company’s past mistakes. Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny over the recent few years because of disinformation. Freedom of expression needs to be promoted and encouraged. But harmful intent and manipulation are not freedom of expression. It is wrong to assert that people can differentiate what is right or wrong on their own when they encounter information on Facebook. There is strong evidences that they do not. Facebook ultimately needs to take responsibility for highly negative or morally unacceptable content on its platform, as well as their potentially disastrous consequences. The company does not have a choice if it wishes to claim that it supports the wellbeing of society.

This article is published under Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Latest Updates

October 29, 2019
Lessons Learned from Data Breach in Southeast Asia: Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?
In 2019, two major data breach incidents happened at the regional level. One was Sephora, a well-known cosmetics retailer that has branches all over the world. […]
2 years ago
Online People-Watching: Censorship, Surveillance, and the National Internet Gateway in Cambodia
On February 16, 2021, the Cambodian government issued the Sub-Decree No.23 on the Establishment of National Internet Gateway.  The law will result in the implementation of […]
June 30, 2020
Open Letter to KOMINFO Requesting for Strong User Privacy Protections in the PeduliLindungi App
26 June 2020 H.E. Johnny G. Plate Minister of Communication and Information Technology Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (KOMINFO) Jl. Medan Merdeka Barat no. 9, […]