November 25, 2019 4:28PM

Speech Paternalism and the People Most Likely to Advocate It

Facebook has decided not to suppress putative falsehoods in political ads on its platform. This decision has many critics. I see three ways forward for Facebook.

First, stay with the policy. The policy is close to the American free speech tradition. It assumes Facebook users have the right and ability to discern truth and falsehood. Regardless of their veracity or original target audience, all political ads are preserved in Facebook’s Ad Library, where anyone can view them.

Second, refuse to run ads with “falsehoods.” Suppressing falsehoods in ads would produce false positives: some “lies” would turn out to be truths. Many “lies” would turn out to be contestable propositions that one side or the other deems “an obvious lie.” Some valuable speech will be suppressed, and both sides in our pathological politics will conclude that Facebook has sided with their adversaries. Regulation to follow. Facebook could simply refuse to run any political ads. Determining what is a political ad will be a problem. It is a troublesome distinction even in the less punitive context of Facebook’s advertiser registration requirement. But note: suppressing all political ads will produce large numbers of false positives (that is, worthwhile speech that is treated like a lie). That doesn’t seem like an idea to be pursued in a liberal society, even though, of course, Facebook has the right to refuse to run all ads.

Third, limit the reach (but not the content) of ads with falsehoods. Here’s the idea: instead of presenting a political ad to 500 users, all of whom might be open to the content of the ad, Facebook could refuse to sell political ads to fewer than 5,000 users. (The numbers may not be exact, but you get the idea). Where a smaller audience might not have seen any debate about the ad, the larger audience will have many people who have doubts about the content of the ad. A debate might well ensue. The 500 users that might have heard nothing against the ad have the possibility of hearing “more speech” about the “lie.”

This third option is brilliant in its own way. This revised policy would not suppress speech directly. Instead, Facebook could say that broadening the audience for an ad would foster more speech about the ad and thereby improve public debate.

But this policy actually contravenes an idea undergirding free speech: people have the right and ability to discern truth from falsehood. Critics of microtargeting disagree. Writing in the New Scientist [paywalled], Annalee Newitz recently argued that “microtargeting allows political lies on Facebook to reach only the people most likely to fall for them.” Those people, she writes, need to hear from “watchdog groups” who presumably will set them straight. Can counterspeech rooted in the belief that some people are incapable of distinguishing truth and lies ever be consistent with free speech? Facebook is free, of course, to practice such speech paternalism. But it will have forsaken a fundamental belief of the liberal tradition and no doubt have opened the door to ever more bullying in the future.