Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, issued an announcement. Effective November 22 his company would no longer allow political advertising on Twitter. This move is part of a long-standing demand from many that Twitter should take greater responsibility for its platform’s influence in shaping public opinion and perception, not to mention political power.
The icon for this political irresponsibility and abuse of Twitter’s influence is of course the President of the United States himself, who boasts nearly 67 million Twitter followers but very little personal conviction toward truth.
It was also a contrast to Facebook’s response that the social media company would not be fact-checking political candidates. According to a statement from Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is. Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third-party fact-checkers.”
Response to the Twitter announcements and the Facebook sidestep have been mixed. On the left, many have seen the Twitter move as the beginning of a trend in the correct direction. Facebook continues to be ridiculed for its inattention to the corporate responsibility which many believe they should be taking. Facebook is accused of hiding behind the banners of free speech for the sake of corporate profits – an unsurprising stance from a multi-billion dollar company.
Jeet Heer explained in an article for The Nation that simply being better than Facebook is not enough for Twitter and Jack Dorsey to secure the applause of liberals and progressives. He notes how Twitter defines political ads in two ways. 1) Ads that refer to an election or a candidate. 2) Ads that advocate for or against issues of national importance.
Under prevailing conventions, advocating for consumption is never political speech, merely commercial speech. Conversely, advocating for changes in consumption or other aspects of the economic system is always political. Under Twitter’s rules, General Motors could buy an ad promoting a gas-guzzling car, but Greta Thunberg couldn’t buy an ad advocating climate action.
The Changing Standards
It is hard to believe that it was less than a decade ago when popular media was celebrating the impact of social media’s use to organize protests and revolution in the Arab Spring. President Obama’s initial 2008 election victory was credited to the grassroots movement the candidate and his party shaped by using the previously untapped potential of social media. Both of those historical achievements could be illegal under proposals now being suggested by many politicians on the left today.
What changed? The pendulum swung and the right side of the political spectrum became more proficient at manipulating social media and our interconnected online world than the left originally was. The likely end to these debates will not be found in corporate responsibility or government regulations. It will be found in the pendulum swinging again, politics and social media evolving, and the left recapturing command of the social media heights.
Meanwhile, caught in the back and forth of this political struggle is the diminishing sanity of our society and the further blurring of what truth actually means.
Truth Is Not Political
The biggest problem confronting the social media giants is that in our current politicized era, everything is politicized and so everything runs the risk of being a political ad or statement. How are they to regulate that in languages, cultures, and values across the globe? The only way that could be managed is through a common shared standard for truth and correctness.
Thus, cultural issues in Uganda, Saudi Arabia, or China would be held to the same universal standard of political correctness that is upheld by the gatekeepers of social influence in the United States. The reality is far removed from this of course. The perspectives on LGBT rights, women’s rights, free markets, and respect for governing authorities vary across all of these domains. The fact that companies based in the United States hold the levers to power and access should not be enough to qualify them as being right on these issues. Political correctness is not the same as truth.
The debate is frequently presented in the shape of extreme examples. A recent Facebook ad fraudulently suggested former Vice President Biden offered money to the government of Ukraine if they would remove a prosecutor who was unfriendly toward his son. Facebook refused to remove the ad. Elizabeth Warren demonstrated the frailty of Facebook’s policy by running her own false Facebook ad saying the company endorsed President Trump. This was also untrue. These extreme examples appear simple enough to resolve through a responsible and proactive role of the social media group.
Most political issues and debates, however, are not as clear cut in alignment or misalignment with facts and truth. The more difficult reality for social media companies to navigate is the gray area of the collision between truth and politics. When politics becomes the framework through which we see the world, truth is subordinated to our political values. Those values are not always related to facts and are frequently very far from the truth.
During game seven of the World Series President Trump ran a $250,000 ad touting the following claims since becoming President:
- Illegal immigration has been cut in half
- 6 million new jobs added to the economy
- Creating 500,000 new manufacturing jobs
- Obliterating ISIS
Are these statements factually correct? The answer depends upon who you ask, what data you believe, what time period you examine, and the type of math you use. CNN has said it is false. Fox News has said it is true, and was, in fact, the credited source for some of the claims within the ad. Which of these sources are true? Neither. This is politics. Politics has little to do with facts or truth.
What about statements on climate change and the environment? Various claims and statistics are frequently published from both sides of the debate and questioned or doubted by the opposing side. Which claims are true? Which claims should social media be silencing, and which claims should be amplified, or at least allowed to publish unhindered by the fact-checkers or gatekeepers of truth at Twitter and Facebook?
Transgender individuals identify with a gender that is in direct contradiction to their biology. A male individual has a XY chromosomes. A female has XX chromosomes. An individual’s feelings or personal identification on the matter are not really relevant if we are looking solely at facts and truth. So, should we expect Twitter or Facebook, in the demand for truth and guardianship of the facts, to ban the transgender movement? When a liberal individual or organization criticizes a religious or traditional perspective as hateful because they oppose transgenderism, will the guardians of facts and truth ban such opponents to facts and truth from their platforms? Not likely.
In such instances we are not talking about truth or facts. We are talking about politics.
What Frees Us From This Confusion
Truth is not about who has the most power or the greatest platform. It is not even about who has the most influence or more popular values. It is not found in profit-seeking agendas or political strategies and arguments. Truth is the thing that is supposed to set us free.
You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. John 8:32
We should be very careful in the context of our current culture wars where we give our allegiance and trust. Political arguments and popular media debates work well to stir our attention and anxieties, but the truth is altogether separate from these things. Truth sets us free, not from obstacles or circumstantial limitations. Truth sets us free from the reproach upon our personal conscience.
If we want to find the truth, we must find the internal standard that can be shared between a man or woman living in prison, under the most oppressive regime on the planet, or in the United States itself. That is a free person. Circumstances do not rule them. They are unbound by the political shackles of what is temporarily popular or momentarily prioritized. They are operating from a higher standard and source where they know the truth and the truth has set them free.
You might also enjoy this podcast episode: Post-Truth