The “Honest Ads Act” is, well, boring. As a bipartisan proposal to evolve the way Facebook and other online platforms treat political ads it checks a bunch of boxes. Publicly available records of ad spend and the viewing metrics associated with the campaigns would be an improvement on today’s black box, but would this fundamentally change discourse in American politics? I don’t think so. And even if it helps limit foreign actors, we already see that many of the most destructive, controversial or half-true campaign ads come from within our own borders!
“Honest Ads” and Twitter’s proposed Transparency Center are like putting bandaids on a patient who’s bleeding out. Why can’t Facebook aim higher than regulators when it comes to putting forth a POV on their own platform? What if Facebook set out to create a new ethical high ground? Enter the Constructive Campaigns Pledge.
One: Create the Carrot. Imagine Facebook bundles a number of its tools together into a single program aimed at politicians. A politician can have their FG Page labeled as “Verified,” have access to a pool of Facebook resources for campaign optimization, integrated donation tools, and so on. Any candidate on the ballot for a US-based election is eligible (or set a min threshold to start of Federal election).
Two: Show the Stick. What does a candidate need to do to access these tools? Commit to Facebook’s Constructive Campaign Pledge. This Pledge states that content or ads shared by the official campaign on the platform will be “positive in nature,” in the sense it focuses on explaining the qualifications and policies of the candidate, and does not mention the opponent. No negative campaigning, no voter suppression campaigns. Facebook will use a combination of human review and technology to manage enforcement, just as it does its ad policies.
Three: BUT FREE SPEECH!!! Sorry, free speech doesn’t apply to private platforms. And you know what’s already arbitrary? Facebook’s content policies and ad policies. So why can’t they have specific direction regarding political speech? At Google we always used to believe that a connected, peaceful world was good for our longterm business. Doesn’t Facebook believe that a civil, peaceful, fact-oriented America is good for its business?
Four: It’s Optional And Only Applies to the Campaigns Themselves. If you’re a candidate and don’t like the constraints, no problem. Don’t sign the Constructive Campaign Pledge. You can still use Facebook’s tools, its ad platform and so on. You just don’t get additional access to account management help and so on – no embedded Facebook employees just because you’ve got a big ad budget to spend. You know this already kinda happens in elections regarding the decision for a candidate to take Federal matching funds or not?
Facebook, with its immense reach, has a chance to not just reflect behaviors, but evolve, even improve them. “Transparency” is just a quarter-step in the right direction if you believe there are underlying constructive principles guiding political speech and norms. What would a full step look like? Maybe something like what I’ve proposed here?