by Eric Lieberman
A professor was recently unable to promote a podcast on Facebook that delved into Russians’ perspective of President Donald Trump because it was deemed to fall under the tech company’s new rules against political advertising.
Sean Guillory, a scholar with a doctoral degree from UCLA, is the digital scholarship curator at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and East European Studies. In his podcast episode published Saturday called “Russians on Trump,” Guillory interviewed another expert Laurence Bogoslaw, who has established a collective resource for translated Russian news coverage of Trump. Knowing very well how hot of a topic the president, the foreign adversary and alleged connections between the two are, Guillory wanted to promote the dialogue.
Facebook denied his request to purchase an ad slot for the podcast. Eventually, after an appeal, the tech giant explained that it regards Guillory’s interview as political content, meaning there would be greater scrutiny and a potentially higher cost for sponsorship.
“This is the crux of the problem: What is ‘political’?” Guillory told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I see my podcast as educational in that its mission is to interview people who have some expert knowledge about Eurasia’s politics, culture and history, discuss that knowledge and paint a more complex picture of Eurasia for my audience.” (The Verge was the first to speak with Guillory.)
Facebook announced on May 24 a new process in which it will start labeling political ads featured on the platform in an attempt to have users better understand where content comes from. Election-related and issued ads on Facebook and Instagram will now have a “Paid for by” disclosure appended to it, a feature that will lead an internet browser to information about the source of the ad. Having to decide what constitutes as “political” isn’t really an exact science because such deciphering is usually liable to subjectivity and differing personal interpretations — a difficulty likely prevalent for other types of content, such as those that are “hateful” or “fake.”
Nevertheless, Facebook, by rolling out the new initiative (among many others) seems, ready to try. The apparent urgency presumably stems from backlashthe company has received from a large portion of the public, as well as lawmakers, for allowing Russian operatives to use its platform and services in ultimately disruptive ways.
“I think the Russian meddling using Facebook has been quite overblown. No one has yet provided much evidence as to its impact,” said Guillory, a self-described “Leftist.” “There’s also a certain fetishism about how much social media can influence people’s voting patterns. In my view, I think social media does more to confirm rather than change people’s opinions.”
The purported problem of fake news — one of the primary reasons for the introduction of restrictions around paid political postings — didn’t prove too influential in tipping the scale for the 2016 election in one direction, according to researchers at Stanford and New York University. What the Kremlin did appear to try to do in relation to interference was sow seeds of divisiveness within an already very divisive American electorate by playing off of highly schismatic societal issues like racism, gay rights, and gun rights.
Facebook declined to comment on the record when reached by TheDCNF. A representative, however, provided language included in its publicly available policy.
“Any advertiser running election-related or issue ads who is located in or targeting people in designated countries must complete the authorization process required by Facebook,” the page reads.
This applies to any ad that “relates to an election, referendum, or ballot initiative, including ‘get out the vote’ or election information campaigns.” It also stipulates that it will enforce increased oversight and requirements for an ad that deals with “any national legislative issue of public importance,” a broad and arguably all-encompassing definition. Facebook provides a list of what are considered “national issues of public importance” for specifically the U.S., which are relatively more particular, but still very extensive, thus making so much content susceptible to substantial promotional constraints.
“I even did an experiment. After the ‘Russians on Trump’ boost was denied, I tried boosting another episode that featured Michael Idov,” an award-winning journalist and screenwriter who also studies Russia, Guillory explained.
“That one was approved. The content was no less ‘political’ by Facebook’s apparent definition. I assume the ‘Russians on Trump’ episode was rejected simply because it had ‘Russians’ and ‘Trump’ in the title,” Guillory continued. “In many respects, my podcast is no different than what I do with my undergraduate students in the classroom. Should that be considered ‘political’? Or are we going to become totally relativist to the point where all knowledge is political? The problem with the current state of American political discourse seems to be in a place where everything is relative, individualized, and reflective of one’s ‘identity.’”
Such a situation will likely become more frequent as midterms approach and more people try to post political content — whether defined loosely or precisely — on the platform.
“So if I lecture about Stalin and the causes of the Terror, that’s political? Or the causes and history of the Russian Revolution?” Guillory conjectured, at least partially alluding to if he was to try to publish and promote such discussions on Facebook. “It can get a little ridiculous rather quickly.”
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Eric Lieberman is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow Eric on Twitter.