Today, PEN America joined the ranks of those who fight for truth in the darkest timeline by releasing a statement exhorting Facebook to decline to run political advertising that is “demonstrably false.” PEN America’s mission explicitly includes the defense of freedom of expression, so it is a powerful gesture for this organization to make a distinction between free speech and the kind of divisive misinformation campaigns that swayed the 2016 US presidential election cycle, the Brexit campaign in the UK, and still hold the power to affect global geopolitics in the future.
“Facebook is mistaken if it believes that running manifestly deceitful political ads on the network serves the cause of free speech or protects against censorship,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement. “We urge Facebook to reexamine its approach and decline to run political ads that are demonstrably untrue. While the company should adopt a liberal approach to ordinary posts that may be false or misleading, a higher-level duty attaches when Facebook is in a business relationship with an advertiser, selling access to its user base. Falsifications in commercial ads are illegal, online or off.”
The misleading nature of political advertising is of great concern to many people, among them HonestAds — an organization dedicated to watch-dogging the spread of misinformation through political advertising, which is not subject to the kind of regulatory processes that other forms of advertising undergo. PEN America has gone so far as to produce a detailed report on the cause-and-effect about the assault on the collective psyche through social media: “Faking the News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth,” released in October of 2017.
“The proliferation of false information and rising distrust in the established news media, due in part to a deliberate campaign of denigration, pose a looming crisis for American democracy and civic life,” states the report. “A series of factors — soaring levels of mistrust of journalism and the media, an explosion of new online news outlets, rapid changes in patterns of information consumption, sharp ideological divides that dictate which media outlets are trusted by whom, daily attacks on the press by the president of the United States and his allies, and stumbles by the media itself in an era of cutthroat competition and instantaneous transmission of information — combine to call into question existing methods for disseminating and validating the news for and by an information-hungry but skeptical public.”
While it’s valid to say that there has always been an appetite among the general public for demonstrably false news (BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!!), the truly unprecedented factor is the power of the internet in general, and Facebook in particular, to present massively influential and targeted campaigns of misinformation to sway public opinion.
“We recognize that the boundary between political hyperbole and downright falsehood can blur, but Facebook draws precisely that type of content-based distinction thousands of times per day,” the PEN statement continues. “American democracy cannot afford a second successive US election that is deeply polluted by false information spread on online platforms.”
Even the faintest glimpse of Mark Zuckerberg’s weasely, sunken-eyed face really makes a person miss the days of Bat Boy. Just like Zuck, Bat Boy had a penchant for terrorizing rural populations with hoaxes and iffy secondhand information, but at least Bat Boy didn’t sit at the helm of a global network of influence. Unless — and I’m just posing a hypothetical here — Mark Zuckerberg IS Bat Boy. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m just saying you heard it here first, and what else matters these days?
Bat Boy is a beautiful illusion; Mark Zuckerberg is a living nightmare; thanks to PEN America for fighting the good fight!