Rush to Regulate Political Ads Threatens Political Speech

RNLA Executive Director Michael Thielen wrote today in the Daily Caller about the potential for suppression of speech in the rush to restrict foreign political ads:

But the First Amendment does not apply to social media, leaving people with unpopular messages silenced by unaccountable decisions made within unresponsive corporate entities. . . . As these companies move forward with their responses to the allegations of Russian influence in the 2016 election through purchasing ads and producing false or misleading content, they need to take care that their efforts do not end up destroying the public forum for discussion they have created. 

For example, Facebook’s announcement certainly has a political tinge to it, as prospective 2020 presidential candidate, noted liberal, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to force additional disclosure surrounding political ads that the government has not required.  It is within Facebook’s right as a private entity to do so, but as with many well-meaning but misguided liberals, Zuckerberg may not fully realize the implications of the policies he touts. 

What will Facebook consider political ads?  There are many different legal definitions: express advocacy (vote for/against candidate A), issue advocacy, lobbying, and so on.  There are different speakers: candidates, non-profit organizations, individuals, advertisement agencies, media organizations, for-profit companies, and so on.  What makes an ad political?  What makes an ad sponsored by a foreign person or entity?  Who will be making these decisions at Facebook and how will Facebook ensure that decisions are not politically or ideologically motivated? What recourse exists for silenced parties? What will happen if Zuckerberg officially announces he is running for President? 

There are good reasons to be skeptical.  Last year, Facebook admitted that some conservative news stories were suppressed due to employees’ decisions, not a systemic policy.  Stories abound of conservatives’ posts or profiles being flagged and removed for nothing more than expressing a conservative opinion.  Facebook abandoned plans for a “fake news” removal algorithm that disproportionately removed conservative news stories.  At a large tech company like Facebook, computer algorithms and individual employees often make these nuanced and politically charged decisions that affect individuals’ and organizations’ ability to communicate. . . . How Zuckerberg’s principles are actually implemented will have an enormous impact on the nature of public discourse going forward.  Concerned citizens should watch this process closely.

Mr. Thielen also discusses the new efforts by Democrats and liberals to increase government regulation of speech in response to the allegations of foreign influence in last year's election.  As he notes in conclusion, while foreign efforts to interfere with our elections may be concerning, a rush to regulate and restrict speech without considering the important political speech rights and interests at stake would be a dreadful mistake.