- The 2020 US presidential election is coming, and it’s going to be brutal for Facebook.
- The company has been suffering for more than two years of politically infused scandals.
- And it is now likely to become a political football over the next year, with both Republicans and Democrats eager to tear into the company.
- The current controversy over political ads illustrates how, whatever Facebook chooses to do (or not do), it will inevitably end up frustrating one side of the aisle.
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Over the past few months, Facebook has been whipsawed by controversy over its policies on political ads, alternately slammed by the left and pressured by the right in a seeming no-win situation for the Silicon Valley social networking giant. It’s only a teaser of what is yet to come.
It is now less than a year until the 2020 US presidential election, which is expected to be the most bitterly fought electoral battle in the US for more than a generation.
Over the past few years, Facebook has become inextricably tangled in political controversy and is attempting to resuscitate its image after an endless chain of scandals. As the 2020 race kicks off in earnest, the challenges the $580 billion tech firm faces will only intensify.
Take political ads. Facebook is under intense scrutiny over its refusal to fact-check political advertising on its platform. The American left argues that this gives politicians license to lie without consequence on the social network, pointing at provably false ads already run by the Trump campaign.
Facebook’s defense — echoed by many on the right — is that it’s not the company’s place to be arbiter of truth in the political sphere.
As the November 3 election draws nearer, if Facebook does nothing, the left’s fury over the issue will only intensify, especially following revelations by The Wall Street Journal that the conservative Facebook board member and Trump supporter Peter Thiel is among those lobbying Mark Zuckerberg not to make changes. But if it agrees to make changes, it will undoubtedly be perceived by the right as capitulating to liberal political pressure and be pilloried for it.
Facebook is acutely sensitive to criticism from the right, which has repeatedly alleged that the social network is censoring conservatives. No real evidence has emerged that the company is really trying to silence right-leaning people, but it has become an effective cudgel for Republican activists and politicians, and Zuckerberg was repeatedly questioned about it when testifying before Congress.
Facebook will be wary of making any changes that could exacerbate the issue, particularly given the very real chance of another four years of Trump in the White House.
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If Trump does win in 2020, Facebook will undoubtedly be accused by at least some on the left of being a key reason for his success and further vilified accordingly — but if he doesn’t, more fundamental threats may be brewing.
After the 2016 election, historically laudatory attitudes from many liberals toward Big Tech soured over its perceived role in Trump’s victory, a growing distrust that was stoked by revelations around Cambridge Analytica and Russian propaganda campaigns on Facebook. Now Democratic presidential hopefuls like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have made opposition to the power of Big Tech a cornerstone of their platforms, and depending on who wins the primary, a 2020 Democrat victory could mean an unprecedented wave of scrutiny for Facebook on antitrust and other issues.
In short: For both Republicans and Democrats, criticizing Facebook is seen as just good politics.
None of this means that Facebook should escape scrutiny throughout 2020, or that the decisions it does ultimately make (or punt on) should be excused. But it’s difficult to see a path forward for the social network that doesn’t turn it into a political football, when even staying “neutral” is perceived as choosing a side.
Do you work at Facebook? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal at (+1) 650-636-6268 using a nonwork device, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Telegram or WeChat at robaeprice, or Twitter DM at @robaeprice. (PR pitches by email only, please.)
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