What’s the problem with political ads on social media?

Facebook and Twitter take divergent paths

December 9, 2019

What categorizes something as “political”? Answering this question has become an increasing problem for social media platforms as those who run them prepare for the upcoming election cycle and adjust to the new norm of their influential role in society. The benefits and drawbacks of political advertising are currently being debated by social media giants. The political ads run by political action committees and candidates themselves can influence public opinion like never before with the ability to microtarget messaging to a very select group of people.

This type of targeting has led some to believe that these messages are being tailored specifically to fuel outrage against opponents, often through the use of fake news and misleading messages. On the other hand, these tools have led to the rise of relatively unknown candidates and causes to national prominence. 

Those who run these social media companies have every right to change the rules of use for their platforms, deciding what type of content can be posted and how they use advertising. Yet with the enormous power these companies hold over our society, many question if the public and the government should have any role in regulating the best path forward for our civil discourse, rather than leaving this decision in the hands of companies alone.

Divergent paths for two social platforms

Twitter and Facebook recently took divergent paths in dealing with political advertising and the rise of fake news on their platforms. This all began on Sept. 24 when Nick Clegg, the vice president of global affairs and communications at Facebook, announced that Facebook would cease to fact-check politicians’ speeches; the speeches were deemed “newsworthy” and an arena that Facebook should not referee. Clegg stated that the company would retain fact-checking for political and social-issue advertisements, even those run by campaigns and outside groups. The goal in this move is to allow the public to debate the ideas and make their own decisions. Critics argue that this decision was motivated by profits and will be, in the long term, deleterious for society. 

In sharp contrast, just over a month later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that Twitter would cease to allow any and all political ads on their platform starting on Nov. 22, 2019. The announcement by Dorsey originally included issue-based ads that come from candidates or reference them in any way, as well as any ad focusing on a legislative issue of national importance. But in the Nov. 15 policy announcement, this ban on issue-based ads was walked back substantially, even though it is still difficult to decipher what type of issue ads would be allowed under the new policy.

Examples of issue-based ads include climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, and taxes, per Twitter’s policy team. While some lauded this decision as pursuing the common good over profits, many debated how this might bolster incumbents in public office. One of the biggest issues in this move is how to draw a line around political versus issue ads since these things mean different things to different people.

The problem with defining what’s actually political

These companies are going to have a tough time stating what constitutes a political ad because there has been (and likely always will be) an ongoing debate over what is really political. Coming from the greek word polis, meaning city, politics can be defined as the “affairs of the city.” But the affairs of the city are not limited specifically to governmental issues because the city is made up of people seeking to live in community with one another. Political issues are by nature then societal issues�—the topics that relate to how we interact and live with others in community. Everything we discuss is inherently political as it deals with real people and real issues.

As Christians, we can be confident that everything we believe about God and this world belongs in the public square because it promotes true human flourishing.

By this expanded definition, online platforms are going to have a hard time drawing the line for banning political ads over certain social issues like abortion, immigration, and climate change. Some will argue that any social issues ad is political because it deals with the issues of life, while others will narrowly define these ads as pertaining to political campaigns or ads for specific pieces of legislation, both at the state and federal level.

Every type of political or issue ad is essentially seeking to influence public opinion in one way or another. The danger of banning ads is that often the ones to prevail will be based on whichever group is most powerful in the culture. It is easy to imagine a world where certain popular issues, such as the right to abortion, are prioritized as nonpolitical by these platforms, but a pro-life ad would be categorized as political because it runs contrary to current cultural moods.

The biggest complications in these debates revolve around issues of free speech and the nature of civil debate in our society. Facebook’s leaders stated that their decision to leave candidate ads up is championing free speech, which many agree with in principle. Other platforms are entering into a dangerous space by seeking to define what is political based on their own preferences, essentially silencing minority opinions and voices. 

A Christian’s confidence

We should have rich debate in our society over the use of these tools, especially microtargeting, all the while realizing that there is danger in limiting speech. Regardless of how Christians approach the limits of free speech on these platforms, we should be committed to the truth of each image-bearer’s worth and dignity. With every interaction online and every click of the mouse, we must remember that we are interacting with real people (not bots, we hope). It is easy to denigrate a caricature or meme, but much harder to do those things when we remember that there is a flesh-and-blood person on the other end of the screen. 

We should also be the first to engage in honest dialogue over divisive issues because we know that “true truth” exists and that we can learn from those with whom we fundamentally disagree. As Christians, we can be confident that everything we believe about God and this world belongs in the public square because it promotes true human flourishing. And ultimately, we embrace freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas because we know that true truth will always prevail in the end.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24