Free speech, fake news, and social media

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: political advertising. 

Social media companies faced a lot of criticism after the 2016 election for how they handled political ads.  Facebook and Twitter and other platforms were accused of spreading fake news and allowing foreign influence in the political debate.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Heading into the 2020 election, social media companies say they are trying to stay above the political fray. And they’re taking very different approaches.

Joining us now to talk about it is Jason Thacker. He’s an associate research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Let’s start with the different approaches taken by those two social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter.  How is each company planning to handle political ads?

JASON THACKER, GUEST: Yeah, back in September, Nick Clegg—one of the vice presidents of Facebook—announced publicly that Facebook was going to cease fact-checking political ads. And that sent shockwaves through the technology community, but also the media in general because of the rise of fake news and misinformation and knowing how the social media ads have been able to influence public opinion and also our elections. 

Then Twitter followed up in November with CEO Jack Dorsey tweeting that Twitter would actually cease to allow all political ads, including issue-based and campaign ads, on their platform completely. That was substantially walked back, actually, later on where they said they would allow issue-based ads. 

So these two kind of divergent paths and there were cheerleaders on both sides. This is a really complicated issue for Christians especially to think through.

REICHARD: Well, right, and at the root of this how we define certain words. How do these companies define “political” in the first place? Most of us probably think political means campaigns and candidates. But it’s not that clear-cut, is it?

THACKER: It’s not at all. I mean, political comes from the word polis. It’s a Greek word that means city. And so political often means the affairs of the city, but even that’s harder to define because when you think of the affairs of the city, well, cities are made up of people, so it’s how we live in community with one another. 

So this isn’t just government. It’s not limited to government type of issues. It’s the type of issues that we think through, whether it’s abortion or free speech or sexuality issues. And so if you take a broader definition of what political means, it gets really, really complicated for these companies when they’re having their policy teams and their content moderation teams who are doing really good work trying to decipher, is this OK? Is this in line with our policy or not? 

It’s just a very complicated issue. And there really hasn’t been a good clear-cut answer from either of the platforms on how they seek to deal with these issues.

REICHARD: Let’s talk about free speech. We’re talking about private companies here—Facebook and Twitter and the others. They can do what they want in that regard. But their influence is so pervasive, unprecedented really, that some people think the government should step in to regulate them. What do you think?

THACKER: Yeah, and I think that’s a really good point to bring out is that these are private companies. But when it comes to the influence, the outsized influence that social media has not only on our election but even on our pocketbooks and how we live our lives daily, the news we’re seeing and how that influences public opinion—you have a lot of private groups but also government agencies are thinking how do we step in and how do we promote human flourishing and the common good in our society? And that’s a really complicated issue. 

And so I do think that Facebook is taking a better approach. I don’t think it’s perfect because I do think coming in to say, look, we’re not wanting to step in as arbiters of truth. We don’t want to say what’s right and what’s wrong. The problem with that is that you can allow misinformation or fake news to promulgate and to go forth and to influence public opinion. 

So what I think as Christians, as we step into this, we need to be thinking clearly about issues of human dignity. We need to be thinking about issues of freedom of speech. We need to be educating ourselves about what is true and not just reacting to whatever we see online or whatever meme or news story, but really seeking truth in everything we do.

REICHARD: Jason Thacker is an associate research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

THACKER: Yeah, thank you for having me.

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) This July 9, 2019, file photo shows a sign outside of the Twitter office building in San Francisco.

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