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Here's Why Facebook Won't Do the Obvious

Let’s be clear: I’m not a fan of the way Facebook has manipulated us: our interactions, our democracy, our sense of self. I’m not a fan of the way it amplifies racism and hate speech. I’m not a fan of the way it disseminates information. I’m not at all convinced that, on balance, it represents a net positive to society -- although I’m open to the debate.

And so it feels strange to be in a position of defending Facebook. But last week, when my fellow Media Insider Maarten Albarda asked, “What Is It With Facebook Not Doing The Obvious?,” I felt compelled to answer.

Maarten’s argument in a nutshell: Political advertising represents an insignificant part of Facebook’s revenue, so -- given the headache it represents – “why not ban the whole political spectrum of ads, content, posts, etc.?”

If we assume this is possible, the first question is whether this would produce a good outcome.

It would certainly, as Maarten says, prevent Facebook from being “accused of bias for or against any political preference, real or imagined.” But let’s further assume that, when we say “good outcome,” we don’t mean for Facebook, we mean for humanity.

OK, so when we ban the whole political spectrum, what does that include? Yes, false political ads; yes, stretched truths; yes, people taken out of context. Your political opponents will no longer be able to sully your feed with blatant lies about your preferred politician, party or policy.

But we won’t only be banning the content we don’t want -- we'll also be banning the stuff we like.

In political thought experiments, it’s always useful to consider how you would feel if things were reversed. For example, if you think the electoral college sucks because your candidate won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, consider how you would feel if your candidate won the electoral college but lost the popular vote -- would you still feel the same?

So now imagine your preferred politician, party or policy is no longer able to use Facebook to get the word out about their awesomeness. How will causes make themselves known? Three options: traditional advertising, earned media (meaning news coverage), and virality.

Traditional advertising is way more cost-prohibitive than advertising on Facebook, so now you’ve fully advantaged the bigger players. Earned media is much harder to get if you haven’t made a bit of a splash in the first place, and relying on virality as a reach strategy is like relying on Lotto as a retirement strategy.

So eliminating political ads on Facebook altogether would advantage the bigger, richer players, who can afford to use traditional advertising to grow their presence, making it more likely that the news will cover them.

But here’s the thing: the original assumption -- that it’s even possible to ban the whole political spectrum -- is false.

If Facebook bans “political” ads, the community group fighting against a new coal mine is silenced, while the fossil fuel company advertising its “eco-fuels” is allowed.

The parents group arguing for gun control is silenced, while the gun company advertising its new weapons is allowed.

The nonprofit seeking clear food labeling is silenced, while the junk food company advertising directly to kids is allowed.

You want to know why Facebook doesn’t do the obvious and ban all political advertising? It’s because everything is political -- especially our choices about who does and doesn’t get to pay to have their voices amplified.

I’m all for fixing the way Facebook has poisoned our political discourse. But straight up banning political ads isn’t it.

There has to be a better way.

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