“What is truth?”
This is the question Pontius Pilate poses to Jesus during His trial, after the Lord says that His mission was to testify to the truth. Some version of this question is currently stumping social media giants Facebook and Twitter as they look toward an ever-divisive political climate and consider how to deal with political ads.
Should a social media platform allow advertisements to include false information (or “alternative facts” if you will)? If the answer is yes, as Facebook’s current policy seems to indicate, the world’s largest social media platform is open to full-scale, targeted misinformation campaigns.
But if the answer is no, a social media company finds itself in an interesting position: they have to be deciders of what the truth is.
Up to this point, there seemed to be a prevailing common sense understanding of what was true. There were a limited number of news outlets and in large part their facts tended to be consistent; even if the narrative varied. With the advent of social media, information has become so siloed that even the “facts” vary based on the source. In attempts to take the moral high road, Facebook and Twitter have to address the question of what truth is.
Recently, Twitter seemingly sidestepped the question by banning all political advertising globally across the platform. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey cited democratic reasons for prohibiting political ads: let the people decide rather than the money.
But this move raises a similarly hairy question for Twitter: What constitutes a “political” ad? Does Planned Parenthood get advertisements while pro-life organizations like Live Action are blocked as political?
It’s not often that major business leaders are in the headlines confronting deep political and philosophical questions, but these questions do arise. That should cause us to take a step back and look around to see where we are and how we got here.
It is often said that we live in a “post-truth” society, where there is no objective truth or everyone has their own truths. The clash between two titans of social media over the issue of truth in politics shows that the question of truth can’t really be settled at an individual level. We need a common understanding.
I believe deep down most of us suffer from an insecurity about asserting our own truth exactly as we see it. We tend rather to look around us and see what people we admire think is true. The social affirmation of a perception builds the confidence necessary to assert “This is true.”
Historically, institutions have expressed these common understandings of truth. At their best, these institutions identify the truth not to oppress the individual, but because the whole truth is not accessible to individuals. It is only expressible through a community.
But not all institutions are created equal. Facebook and Twitter are corporations structured to make profits for their shareholders. This structure is an enormous obstacle for them to be neutral deciders of what is true or what is political. Perhaps this means that social media should be considered more as a public utility as some have argued. Or perhaps it is a reason to spend less time on Twitter or Facebook and more time in the institution founded on Truth itself.