Facebook’s Political Ads Ignores 90% Of Its Global Users

When Facebook wrote to Joe Biden’s campaign to say it would not back down from its decision to exempt politicians from its ban on advertising false statements, it was not Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg who signed the letter, but a not particularly well-known staffer named Katie Harbath. As Facebook’s Director of Public Policy for Global Elections, Harbath has been a prominent voice in defending the controversial policy. “If people have a problem with Facebook’s policy, they have a problem with the way political speech is protected in this country,” she wrote in an op-ed in USA Today this week. “Fundamentally we believe that, in a democracy, it’s better to let voters make their own decisions, not companies like Facebook.”

Amid all this attention, Harbath’s professional history as a Republican party operative has become the subject of much discussion among Democrats and the liberal media. Surely, the narrative goes, Harbath is a Trojan horse for the GOP, twisting and shaping Facebook’s policies in order to tilt the scales toward the Republican party in 2020. But the arguments Harbath is making for Facebook and the arguments Facebook’s critics are making about Harbath suffer from the same frustrating myopia: they view Facebook principally as an American company concerned with American politics. This narrow frame has distorted and degraded the debate over political speech on Facebook at a time when it is crucial to attempt to understand Facebook as a global phenomenon with globe-shaking power.

Harbath’s op-ed repurposed a line from Zuckerberg’s Georgetown speech – a talking point already repeated many times in interviews, before Congress and to investors, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” The glaring problem with this justification is that only a small fraction (less than 10%) of Facebook’s 2.45 billion users live in this democracy, and many live in countries that are not democratic at all. I have yet to hear Zuckerberg or Harbath offer any commentary on how this policy will affect non-American members of Facebook’s so-called “community” – and that’s not for lack of trying. I’ve asked Facebook repeatedly whether it plans to have a different policy on a speech by politicians or political advertisements in non-democratic countries over the past two weeks, to no avail.

This isn’t just a gotcha question. It is a matter of urgent importance, and one that speaks to what, to me, is a much more telling aspect of Harbath’s professional history: her actual work for Facebook. A blockbuster December 2017 article in Bloomberg detailed Harbath’s extraordinary track record leading “a little-known Facebook global government and politics team that’s neutral in that it works with nearly anyone seeking or securing power.” According to the report, Harbath’s staff became “de facto campaign workers” for political campaigns in some of the world’s biggest democracies; they assisted Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, and Andrzej Duda in Poland. Two years after the article’s publication, it’s impossible not to notice that democracy has been severely degraded under the regimes that the Facebook team helped achieve power.

What do Zuckerberg’s bromides about democracy mean to Facebook users in Kashmir, where Modi has blocked the internet for 13 weeks and on Thursday dissolved the constitution? What do his paeans to the free press mean to Facebook users in the Philippines, where Duterte has used his office to attempt to silence an independent journalist working to expose extrajudicial killings and human rights violations? Will Facebook update its “Success Story” about playing a “central role” in the way Duda is “innovating communication between the government and the public” as fears grow that democracy in Poland is eroding under his party’s rule? The paradox here is that Facebook is more accountable to US lawmakers and reporters than it is to any other country. It is incumbent on American politicians and the American press to keep this in mind – and push Facebook to answer questions about how its policies will apply to the vast majority of its users.

Credit: Julia Carrie Wong for The Guardian, 1 November 2019.