The central problem at the heart of all electoral politics is the challenge of mass communication. Social media offers the ability to communicate with the masses with a hitherto impossible specificity. This has thrown up hotly-contested issues, especially after Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
One issue is the organised dissemination of misinformation, either as “fake news” or as paid political ads with false information. While there is consensus on the need for action against fake news, there is an interesting divergence on political ads. Facebook has carved out an exception for paid political ads from its fact-checking programme on the grounds that it is not the role of Facebook to adjudicate political speech in a democracy. On the other hand, Twitter has declared that it will stop all political advertising arguing that “political message reach should be earned, not bought”. Twitter’s stand may seem like it has the moral high ground but some concerns bear discussion.
The position of the two companies neatly sets up the policy framework and the choices therein: To carry political ads or not; to regulate political ads or not. Banning political ads will increase barriers to entry for smaller/newer entities, who require support to cross the initial threshold for visibility. Paid targeted advertising offers a cost-effective way to jump over this primary barrier and its banning will hurt new entrants. Well-funded and organised political entities will simply substitute paid advertising through employees and influencers to increase their reach.
Moreover, what is or isn’t political is subjective. Consumer companies are increasingly making political pitches as a marketing tactic: A clothing company advertising that it pays fair wages; a company promising not to outsource jobs; big tech companies promising to invest in local housing; newspapers promising to report the truth. Are these ads political or apolitical? If we restrict “political” to only those ads aimed at public office, then how would we view the response of various companies to Donald Trump’s immigration ban? A citizens’ group mobilising for a candidate? How will we distinguish between candidates and proxies? Twitter may have decided that the conflict associated with political ads is not worth the trouble but the determination of what is political is itself conflicted.
If banning political ads is not possible, then some argue that political ads be fact-checked to ensure that voters are not fed targeted misinformation. This is reasonable. However, we may end up ceding democratic space to private companies. Political rhetoric often relies on exaggeration and spin. When spin and/or exaggeration shades into falsehood, it is personal and cannot be supplanted, wholesale, by private companies. In a polarised environment, private adjudication is likely to be arbitrary or seen to be so and it is certain every ruling will be challenged irrespective of merit. The logic of fact-checking if extended to other mass media will quickly get out of hand. Would a television or radio station carrying a live political speech be expected to stop transmission the moment a falsehood is uttered?
The real issue with online political ads is the ability to deliver (mis)information to targeted groups allowing the political entity to escape public scrutiny. A political party could conceivably target Dalits promising them social justice while simultaneously mobilising upper caste Hindus against reservations. If politics is ultimately about the collective and commons, then an argument against micro-targeting could be made. However, governance by definition encompasses multiple issues and it is difficult to argue that voters with different concerns be fed the same message. Perhaps a viable way forward could be transparency on all political ads along with associated targeting. This would expose hypocrisy and allow the Opposition to counter politically, as expected in a democracy. Other measures include clear labelling of political ads and spending caps to ensure that the smaller guys are not drowned by opposition content.
The rise of right-wing populism and the organised use of misinformation are political problems. A technological solution will necessarily be rule-based or algorithm-based and it is difficult to see how that could possibly address the essentially dynamic nature of politics. While some regulation is indeed desirable, it is important to ensure that we do not cede control over our democratic processes to private platforms.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2019 under the title ‘Medium can’t kill the message.’ Gupta is AICC joint secretary in charge of Congress’ Student Wing. Views are personal