”We don’t fact-check political ads,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a recent speech. “We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.”

That might be simple common sense to many Americans, but to some Democrats these days, and particularly the Joe Biden campaign, it’s a dangerous point of view.

Biden recently complained when Facebook declined to censor an ad from the Trump re-election campaign that said, “Joe Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company.” Even though that is an entirely defensible assertion — “Everything in the ad is factually accurate,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told me, adding that the spot was reviewed by lawyers prior to its release — and even though it is certainly in line with the political debate that dominates today’s news, the Biden campaign demanded Facebook ban the ad.

”Whether it originates from the Kremlin or Trump Tower, these lies and conspiracy theories threaten to undermine the integrity of our elections in America,” a Biden spokesman said. “It is unacceptable for any social media company to knowingly allow deliberately misleading material to corrupt its platform.”

A Facebook spokesman replied that the company made its decision out of respect for free expression and faith that a controversial ad will receive intense scrutiny in today’s media world. “In mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” the social media company’s spokesman said.

Not long after, Zuckerberg made a more complete defense of Facebook’s policies in a speech at Georgetown University.* The company faces a wide variety of problems when it comes to freedom of expression, he said. Some of those problems have solutions that have broad public support. For example, there is a consensus that Facebook should censor incitements to violence, or child pornography, or terroristic threats.

But political speech is something different. Much of it is supposed to highlight differences in opinion. It targets divisions in the electorate. It can be rough. And that has always been the case.

At Georgetown, Zuckerberg was clearly wary of jumping into the fray. “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” he said. “And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.”

Zuckerberg explained at some length that, since 2016, when some Russian ads directed at the U.S. presidential campaign appeared on Facebook, the company has taken extensive steps to verify the origin of ads and to make sure they are what they purport to be. Facebook accounts that are widely viewed are required to provide a government identification and prove their location in order to run a political ad. Fake accounts are removed -- the company recently said it took down four accounts linked to either Russia or Iran engaging in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

But Facebook made a decision, in Zuckerberg’s words, to “focus on the authenticity of the speaker rather than the content itself.” After all, the content of some of the 2016 Russian ads would have been permissible if the ads had come from Americans. “The real issue,” Zuckerberg said, “was that it was posted by fake accounts coordinating together and pretending to be someone else.” Therefore, it is more effective for Facebook to focus on authenticity rather than trying to devise “an ever-expanding definition of what speech is harmful.”

So Facebook chooses not to play the role of speech police, at least as far as political ads are concerned. “As a principle, in a democracy, I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” Zuckerberg said.

It’s an understatement to say Facebook has problems. It has abused its users’ privacy. There are legitimate complaints about its bias. It has a frightening power over the world of journalism. It could face government anti-trust action.

But in electoral politics in 2020, the ad policy Zuckerberg outlined — if it is followed — would be the right thing to do.

*FULL DISCLOSURE: I should note that I was part of a small group of conservative writers who had dinner with Zuckerberg at his home in California in late July. What was discussed was off the record, but it covered lots of issues facing the company. Facebook did not pay for any of my expenses.

— Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

(11) comments

SeanRanklin

That makes sense allow politicians to post ads online that can be clear lies. Only if defamation were a crime...

Kansasforever

Ads of any kind bought on tv, news publications don’t require fact checks. Why does social media need to be the exception.

SeanRanklin

Social media is the new public discourse of our society where people can write furthermore talk to one another to discuss their views about a variety of topics. Television is one sided where it actually is not an interaction. The question you should be asking is why is something projecting to millions some cases billions of people not requiring fact checking? In todays society with technology a rumor can be started and shared and known by everyone in a matter of seconds while in the past word of mouth communicating took much longer to spread.

SnowGypsy

Anyone that doesn't do their own fact checking on ads (is too lazy and lets others decide for them), deserves what they get. With the internet, fact checking is at one's fingertips. Lots of ads lie, not just the political ones! Personal responsibility!

SeanRanklin

Love that nobody here has a problem with lying and that information distribution about our is a zero sum game ie corporations win and public loses

Kansasforever

Agree 100%. The public has an obligation to research and make their own decisions. And your right we are exposed to ads everyday making outrageous claims that aren’t true and have nothing to do with politics and somehow there is no outrage with this. In the eyes of Maxine Waters only the republicans lie and NEVER the democrats!

Aim_High

The earth is flat, vaccines cause autism, fluoride causes cancer, 9/11 was an inside job, no quid pro quo, etc... Lying has become commonplace the last few years, and we can expect Republicans to tell the windiest of stories in the coming months. All we can do is point them out and provide sources proving otherwise. Should be a fun time. As far as facebook ads, I've never seen an ad on there before... plenty of junk posts but not ads. Maybe I'm doing something right ;)

SnowGypsy

I recently came across a group that supports that the earth is flat. It makes an interesting read, unless one fears their beliefs being challenged which is what far too many fear. Seriously, Republicans aren't the only ones that lie, and this was very evident during the last presidential campaign. Queen of lies, Hillary Clinton and her henchmen and women............. By closing one's self off and being afraid to have one's beliefs challenged, being glued to particular websites and media groups, one just ends up appearing to be ignorant, and therefore, not taken seriously. I would say that in particular using CNN as a source screams ignorance on steroids, but we appreciate the humor!

Aim_High

Yes, being glued to particular websites and media groups makes a person end up appearing to be ignorant, and therefore, not taken seriously. Just look at all the flat earther and anti-vax sites, the ignorance needed to come to these conclusions is always good for a laugh. Also, just because you call something a belief doesn't mean it's not a fact.

I'm not going to argue with you though, you're they type of person who thinks the earth is flat and anyone who has seen the earth from space and knows better is just "afraid to have their beliefs challenged". Silly.

SeanRanklin

What I will never figure out is that you claim Clinton is Queen of Lies that has to make Trump the King I mean take off your bifocals and call it how it is lol both of them lied...why don't we as citizens start holding others for lying accountable instead of the common adage of "well others do it so I can do it" stop deflecting the blame it doesn't solve to root of the problem

Justice81

Sadly, the world is going to hell. Millions support lies by the President.

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