The primary goal of an advertisement is to persuade its audience into buying or using what is being shown. It is therefore not uncommon to come across ads that exaggerate the capabilities of a product or that undermine a competing brand — it’s a business of persuasion through lying. With the rise of social media and consumer culture, people are bombarded by these ads every day. While advertisements that falsely depict, for example, what Burger King’s Whopper looks like in real life are ultimately harmless, there exists situations where lying in advertisements can bring about great damage to society (Stampler). Recently, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have been criticized for their policy on allowing politicians to freely post, share, and promote false political ads. Zuckerberg defended this policy by stating that these ads should not be taken down by his company since that would be a violation of the freedom of speech (“Should Facebook and Other Social Media Regulate Political Ads?”). However, while regulating political advertisements on social media platforms like Facebook may limit the freedom of expression, these measures would ensure the protection and promotion of truth, democracy, and the greater good. Through utilitarianism and virtue ethics, it can be argued that regulating and fact-checking political advertisements would increase the greater good in society as well as the virtues of Facebook and the politicians in question.
The Ethical Virtue of Truth and the Freedom of Free Political Speech
With around 2.41 billion active users, Facebook is the biggest social media network in the world (Clement). That means that when information is shared online, it can potentially spread out to hundreds of thousands of people (Shontell). Political parties in recent elections have been using this to share their platforms with people who might not otherwise be getting news about politics and to test out public reactions to their campaign messages. The parties of the 2019 UK elections have even paid for specifically targeted Facebook ads to maximize their reach online. Often times, it has been noticed that the political ads that get the most interaction are the ones that spread negative claims about parties or politicians, regardless if they are true or not (Doward).
While politicians can say whatever they want in their ads according to Mill and utilitarianism since it falls under the freedom of free political speech, lying and deceit are vices. In this situation, the vices outweigh the virtues and therefore the posting and spreading of lies in political ads is unethical. While Facebook has the means to use third-party fact-checkers to verify the information on these ads, political ads are exempt from their fact-checking policy (Cox). Facebook is therefore knowingly supporting the vice of dishonesty in political advertisements, which is unethical.
Facebook should regulate these ads to promote the virtues of truth and honesty in political advertising. Without doing this, it can be argued that their role as a platform for these ads is unethical since they are supporting the vices of the politicians. Moreover, Facebook makes a lot of money through these paid political ads. When an ad gets a lot of interaction through clicks, shares, and likes, Facebook makes profit. This greediness is a vice and contributes to Facebook’s position of not regulating false claims in political ads since it is often those ads that make them the most profit (“Should Facebook and Other Social Media Regulate Political Ads?”).
Banning and Allowing Free Political Speech on Social Media
Another debate that arises is whether the complete banning of political advertisements on social media or the lack of regulation of these ads is more ethical. In the United Kingdom, the Communications Act of 2003 imposed a blanket ban on all political advertising in media, with some exceptions (Sackman). This means that politicians cannot use social media to spread disinformation through political advertisements. While the House of Lords deemed this to be lawful and not a violation of the freedom of speech, this ban is not bringing about the greatest good. With Facebook’s accessibility and reach, it has become an affordable and easy to use means to get news. By banning all political advertisements on social media, only those who can afford other means of seeing these ads will be able to make more informed opinions. This is not democratic and is not ethical (Sackman).
Allowing political ads to run without fact-checking them also has its downsides and can even change the outcome of elections. Lying in advertising, especially with Facebook’s targeted advertising feature, can manipulate a group of people politically. In the 2016 United States elections, African American voters were discouraged from voting through the use of highly targeted Facebook ads. Many ads spreading false claims about Hillary Clinton as well as ads that implied that voting does not matter were shared to these users (“Russian Trolls' Chief Target Was 'Black US Voters' in 2016.”). However, whether or not these ads were supported by Trump’s campaign is not entirely proven. Nevertheless, Trump’s platform relies on spreading political advertisements that often have lies in them. Since November 2019, Trump has been posting and sharing ads on Facebook that make false claims about Biden’s activities in Ukraine. These ads were widely circulated on Facebook and are not ethical (Cox). They promote the culture of fear within the United States, they reduce truthful knowledge of subject matter, and they undermine democracy, which is not the greatest good. In fact, in a study from 2016, it was found that around 32% of people cannot distinguish a paid political advertisement on Facebook from a regular post, let alone know if what they are reading is truthful (Kruikemeier).
The Regulation of Political Ads on Social Media
Using principles of both utilitarianism and virtue ethics, the solution to this situation would be for Facebook to fact-check and regulate political advertisements on its platform. The freedom of expression would be maintained as long as what is being expressed is truthful. The vices of lying and greed would be reduced, while the virtue of truth will be promoted. This will also lead to an increase in the number of properly informed citizens and voters, which will contribute to better debate and democracy, which is the greater good. A more complex fact-checking system will also create more jobs for journalists and fact-checkers, which improves their utility and the overall greater good. This solution maximizes the greater good and the virtues of both Facebook and the politicians involved.
With Facebook and social media becoming increasingly present within society, and with the rise of political debate on many issues, these social media sites have to act on their role as an indirect distributor of news and advertisements. While other sites like Twitter have banned all political advertisements, this is not the best move for Facebook (“Should Facebook and Other Social Media Regulate Political Ads?”). In order to maximize the reach and the integrity of a political ad, Facebook should regulate and fact-check all political advertisements run on their platform. This solution would result in greater use of the virtue of truth within media and politics. It will also benefit democracy and the greater good since more people would be informed with the truth.
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Doward, Jamie. “Voters 'Used as Lab Rats' in Political Facebook Adverts, Warn Analysts.” The Guardian, 9 Nov. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/09/facebook- voters-used-as-lab-rats-targeted-political-advertising.
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