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Tina Casey headshot

‘Civics-Washing’ In Play Over New Voter Turnout Drive

By Tina Casey
Voter Turnout

A new nonpartisan corporate initiative called Civic Alliance launched last month. The organization joins dozens of leading U.S. brands in a common effort to help increase voter turnout, encourage participation in the 2020 census, and foster a long-lasting culture of civic engagement. That’s all well and good, but in the age of social media a note of caution is advised.

A strong foundation for civic engagement

Civic Alliance was founded by Democracy Works, an organization that focuses on software and other infrastructure issues related to election integrity, and the CAA Foundation, an advocacy arm of the U.S. entertainment industry.

The two groups have recruited an impressive roster of corporate firepower to advance their voter turnout and civic engagement goals.

Among the dozens of leading brands already on board are Gap, Starbucks, Salesforce, Univision, Spotify, the country music organization CMT, AT&T’s advertising and analytics branch Xandr, and MTV.

The Civic Alliance also counts Amazon, Lyft, Microsoft, Urban Outfitters, Verizon Media, VHI, Warby Parker and WordPress on its roster, in addition to many other companies.

A word of caution on social media

In addition to the social media members of Civic Alliance include Snapchat, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook.

And, that’s where things get interesting – and not just because the famous horror novelist and outspoken White House critic Stephen King quit the social network over his allegations that the company is ineffective or unwilling to protect users’ privacy.

Although all forms of social media have faced criticism over unfiltered, misleading or untruthful content, in recent years Facebook has garnered especially sharp attention over its apparent influence on the 2016 U.S. election cycle.

The particulars include Facebook’s role in amplifying Russian-influenced social media campaigns, and its reported violations of user privacy in relation to data collected by the firm Cambridge Analytica.

Civics-washing in play?

In this context, Facebook’s decision to support any civic engagement or voter turnout campaign appears to be little more than an attempt to mute its critics, and the company’s actions in recent months appear to validate the skeptics.

Last month the company announced new policies that make it easier for users to determine which political adds they see. However, in a January 9 blog post, Facebook’s Director of Product Management, Rob Leathern, reaffirmed that the company will not fact-check political ads.

Promoting voter turnout yet shrugging at misinformation

Short of hate speech and other content already covered by Facebook’s community standards, Leathern wrote that “people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.”

By “warts and all,” Leathern was apparently referring to Facebook’s intent to continue allowing misleading or untrue statements in political advertising, so long as they do not break its community standards.

In that regard, Facebook has made two significant moves that indicate a willingness to accommodate more misinformation on its platform, not less.

Last fall the company launched Facebook News with the organization Breitbart included within its partner sources. The move was widely panned by media observers due to Breitbart’s reputation for amplifying conspiracy theories, among other issues.

Last week Facebook also tapped former “Fox & Friends” senior producer Jennifer Williams to steer its new video strategy.

Media Matters was one of many observers taking note of Ms. Williams’s employment history. “As Facebook executives plan a shift in the way the nation consumes news that will almost certainly impact the 2020 presidential elections, they are staffing up with an 18-year veteran of the right-wing cable network that effectively serves as President Donald Trump’s personal mouthpiece,” Media Matters stated.

Adding fuel to the misinformation fire

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself also recently seemed to affirm that the company would continue enabling misinformation in political advertising.

During a speech last Friday at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Utah, Zuckerberg pushed back against calls for his company to set standards for  the content of political advertising.

As reported by CNN, Zuckerberg did acknowledge that Facebook is responsible for taking down material related to terrorism, child exploitation and incitement to violence. Aside from that, though, the company is not responsible for factual accuracy.

“At some point, we’ve got to stand up and say, ‘no, we’re going to stand for free expression,’” Zuckerberg said in remarks cited by sources including the Associated Press.

“Yeah, we’re going to take down the content that’s really harmful, but the line needs to be held at some point,” he said.

Baby steps on truth in political advertising

Drawing a line between “really harmful” and everything else may not be enough to shield Facebook from additional criticism.

Facebook has been steering attention to Senate Bill 1356, the Honest Ads Act, to demonstrate its support for federal legislation that regulates political advertising.

However, the Honest Ads Act does not address misleading or untruthful content. It only requires media platforms to keep detailed records about ad buyers and disclose their identities.

The real problem with political content on Facebook was pinpointed in 2016 by two researchers, who coined the term “firehose of falsehood." Under that strategy, the propagandist throws so many different lies out into the public sphere, so rapidly and in such great numbers, that the facts lose their power to persuade.

The Civil Alliance appears to be on track to get more citizens, perhaps millions more, to the to the polls this year due to its voter turnout efforts. One central issue remains, though. If social media platforms like Facebook fail to adjust their policies in support of truth in political advertising, will all those voters make their decisions based on fact, or fiction?

Image credits: J. Stephen Conn/Flickr; Joseph A./Flickr; Parker Johnson/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey