Yogi Berra once famously gave this puzzling advice to a college graduating class, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The quip became lore, along with other Yogi-isms attributed to the legendary baseball player.
Humorous as it is, there’s relevancy to the quandary social media companies face with the struggle to balance their revenue grab with ways to prevent trolls from poisoning their content with deceitful political ads that could tilt the 2020 election.
The forked options are accept political ads without challenging their veracity or accept no political ads to discourage paid falsehoods.
Facebook chose the former, zero resistance to political ads. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the decision was rooted in the company’s commitment to free speech; that it had nothing to do with partisan politics. But some Facebook employees protested the policy.
It is a commitment, by the way, that doesn’t extend to non-ad content posted to Facebook by devious-minded sources. The social network uses algorithms and human fact-checkers to flag for removal disinformation masked as truth. Because of the incredible volume, much of it still seeps through the roadblock.
By contrast, Twitter bans all political ads. CEO Jack Dorsey reasons it is too judgmentally difficult to completely filter bad internet ads from acceptable ads — and so Twitter won’t accept either. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” said Dorsey.
Still, Twitter’s position on blocking political ads does not yet apply to policing other content on the short message site. Detractors of President Trump failed to block his daily Twitter blasts on the ground they often contain propaganda and false information.
Dorsey separates paid political advertising from free political speech, though he admits the internet challenges are the same – lighting speed, sophistication and overwhelming scale of unchecked misleading information and deep fakes.
“Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings,” he said. “Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility.”
There is a third fork in the road, however. It is traveled by CNHI and other newspapers that value their credibility when accepting political and other advertisements.
No paper that I’m aware of imposes a blanket ban on political ads, and for good free expression reason. But there are boundaries. Statements that assert facts must be truthful; opinions need to respect taste, tone and decency standards. No profanities and obscenities. No ads that might incite violence or illegal activity.
Washington’s impeachment rancor is already costing newspapers advertising revenue. Conspiracy theorists have unsuccessfully sought to place print ads containing unproven accusations that some former and present national security and law enforcement hands – derisively branded “The Deep State” — are behind a “coup” attempt to remove President Trump from office.
Yet the theorists find little resistance to their conspiracy message on the internet. Fake news sites, propaganda blogs, tropes and social media networks spread untruths and intentionally misleading information.
Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies might well copy the newspaper model for vetting falsehoods. Granted, the scale of the internet problem is much larger, but big tech has the technical genius and the money to deal with these pernicious threats to our election process and our democracy.
The digital deluge is boundless – from the far right and the far left, bringing to mind another Yogi-ism in the effort to combat it: “Never give up, because it’s never over till it’s over.”