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.