Social media has become one of the most important platforms used by politicians to promote their agenda.
However, during the 2016 election, it became clear how the unregulated use of social media for political purposes could undermine the most important principles of western democracy. There were credible reports of how social media platforms like Facebook were used to influence the 2016 election in favor of certain candidates.
The fallout from these reports was immediate. Facebook was soon engulfed in one of the worst privacy scandals ever. It emerged that a third-party company called Cambridge Analytica inappropriately harvested the data of millions of users for political ends. The social media company admitted that it could have done more to deal with this situation.
Soon after, Facebook rolled out a series of policies that were meant to prevent such a scandal from happening again in the future. The company has remained in the spotlight since then as politicians and other activists scrutinize every political action taken on the platform.
Recently, a video put out by the Trump campaign containing false claims drew the attention of politicians in Washington D.C. Democrats argued that the company should take down the ad because it contains false information. But Facebook said that it doesn’t fact check political ads.
The company added that this was designed to make sure that the political messages shared through the ads reach the target audience as they were intended. But Twitter, another major social media platform, is taking a more radical approach. The company has said that it is banning all political ads on its platform.
These drastic policies are expected to have far-reaching effects on the US election in 2020 and the future. Early estimates show that politicians will spend up to $2.5 billion in social media ad campaigns as we head to the 2020 polls.
The debate on the role of social media in US politics has been very heated. Right-wing pundits have accused social media platforms of silencing right-wing viewpoints. They are also calling on social media noninterference in political advertising.
In essence, Republicans think that the messages spread in these platforms should not be altered in any way even if they are false. Democrats, on the other hand, feel that social media companies have a greater role to play, especially in fact-checking all political ads.
There is no doubt, however, that social media can be weaponized. The Russian government did this effectively in 2016 with its infamous disinformation campaign on Facebook and Twitter.
Banning political ads doesn’t seem like a solution either. But most people agree that the least these social media companies can do is to make sure that all ads running on their platforms are factually correct.
After all, Facebook fact checks every other ad that it publishes, why not political ads? Some also argue that companies should not regulate themselves. The Federal Election Commission could have a key role to play in making sure that social media platforms are not abused for political purposes.