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End the duopoly

I worked on political ads at Facebook. They profit by manipulating us.

I joined Facebook in June 2018 as its “head of Global Elections Integrity Ops” in the company’s business integrity organization, focused specifically on political advertising. I had spent much of my career working to strengthen and defend democracy — including freedom of speech — as an intelligence officer, diplomat and White House adviser. Now I had the opportunity to help a company that I viewed as playing a major role in one of the biggest threats to our democracy possibly correct course.

In the year leading up to our 2016 election, I began seeing the polarization and breakdown of civil discourse, exacerbated by social media, as our biggest national security threat; I had written about that before Facebook called. I didn’t go into it with rose-colored glasses on, and I didn’t think I was going to change the company. But I wanted to help Facebook think through the very challenging questions of what role it plays in politics, in the United States and around the world, and the best way to ensure that it is not harming democracy.

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A year and a half later, as the company continues to struggle with how to handle political content and as another presidential election approaches, it’s clear that tinkering around the margins of advertising policies won’t fix the most serious issues. The real problem is that Facebook profits partly by amplifying lies and selling dangerous targeting tools that allow political operatives to engage in a new level of information warfare. Its business model exploits our data to let advertisers custom-target people, show us each a different version of the truth and manipulate us with hyper-customized ads — ads that, as of two weeks ago, can contain blatantly false and debunked information if they’re run by a political campaign. As long as Facebook prioritizes profit over healthy discourse, they can’t avoid damaging democracies.

Early in my time there, I dug into the question of misinformation in political advertising. Posting in a “tribe” (Facebook’s internal collaboration platform), I asked our teams working on political advertising whether we should incorporate the same tools for political ads that other integrity teams at Facebook were developing to address misinformation in pages and organic posts. It was unclear to me why the company was applying different, siloed policies and tools across the platform. Most users do not differentiate organic content from ads — as I clearly saw on a trip to India, where we were testing our ads-integrity products — so why were we expecting users to understand that we applied different standards to different forms of content that all just appear in their news feeds?

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