Philip Brey is professor of philosophy of technology at the UT Department of Philosophy. In his research, he investigates ethical aspects of emerging technologies, with a particular focus on information technology. He has been studying digital media since the 1990s and was one of the first scientists to publish about the social implications of the internet. Among others, he has conducted studies on harmful internet use, including social media.
After Twitter announced its new policy, you were invited to discuss this topic during a live debate on Al Jazeera. From your statements, I understood you were against the ban of political ads. Why?
Brey: ‘It is very tricky. On one hand I understand the problem of political ads, as they often contain false and misleading information, which causes a lot of problems especially on social media. Also, there is microtargeting on social media, which exploits the weaknesses of groups of voters. To ban political ads altogether therefore seems to be the easiest solution. However, by banning political ads we are limiting political speech, free speech. In democracy, that is simply not good. Imagine if all media banned political ads and the only way politicians could get their message out would be through interviews and TV appearances. All their messages would be shaped by the broadcasters. Ads are the best way for politicians to get a message across that they fully control. You could say “but it is only Twitter”, there are many other outlets. That is true, but Twitter is setting a dangerous trend that could be followed by others. Studies show that many people nowadays get news only through social media. That means: if there are no political ads on social media, politicians can’t directly communicate with many of their voters.’
Facebook is taking a completely different approach and will continue to allow all political advertising.
‘Yes, what they are doing is also completely wrong. They are allowing everything, even misleading and false information. That is like saying “we have found out that this food product is poisonous”. One company’s response is “we will ban all food”, while the other one says “we will not ban this poison, we will not make any selection for you”. That is irresponsible. It is wrong for any company to put out a message if they know it is false. Facebook’s explanation is that they don’t want to engage in censorship. But they should not misguide voters by allowing false messages.’
I wanted to ask if there is ‘the right’ and ‘the wrong’ choice in this matter, but you already said that they are both completely wrong.
‘Yes, they are both completely wrong. If you ban everything, you lose free speech. If you allow everything, it is also dangerous for democracy. We have seen how vulnerable our democracy is to false messaging. The only viable solution is to move in between these two extremes. Social media companies should be gatekeepers. They should evaluate political ads before publishing. They should hire independent factchecking organizations for this to avoid bias. That is not a crazy idea, I think. Many products need to be checked and tested before they are put on the market. You can’t sell food with false labelling, for example.’
Indeed, but in those cases there are usually laws and regulations in place. In this scenario, it is private companies making decisions that influence the public domain.
‘It is a worrying development that private companies have so much power over free speech. We are starting to realize this, but not much is being done in terms of regulations. The government needs to step in and set some rules. We need a comprehensive approach for all social media, because this ban on Twitter will only have a modest impact. There are other outlets and politicians will just concentrate their efforts elsewhere. We need a shared framework. We need an equivalent of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation [AVG]), not for privacy but for democracy.’
‘Google is doing it the right way!’ Philip Brey reacts to Google’s new policy published yesterday. The company announced that they will bar political advertisers from targeting voters based on affiliation and tighten ban on ‘demonstrably false claims’.