Facebook has argued that it shouldn’t be an arbiter of truth, and that it has a responsibility to remain politically neutral. But the company’s existing policies are anything but neutral. They give an advantage to candidates whose campaigns are good at cranking out emotionally charged, hyperpartisan content, regardless of its factual accuracy. Today, that describes Mr. Trump’s strategy, as well as those used successfully by other conservative populists, including President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. But it could just as well describe the strategy of a successful Democratic challenger to Mr. Trump. Facebook’s most glaring bias is not a partisan one — it is a bias toward candidates whose strategies most closely resemble that of a meme page.
On one level, Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision on ads, which came after months of passionate lobbying by both Republican and Democratic campaigns, as well as civil rights groups and an angry cohort of Facebook employees, is a bipartisan compromise. Both sides, after all, rely on these tools, and there is an argument to be made that Democrats need them in order to close the gap with Mr. Trump’s sophisticated digital operation.
Ultimately, though, Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision to leave Facebook’s platform architecture intact amounts to a powerful endorsement — not of any 2020 candidate, but of Facebook’s role in global democracy. It’s a vote for the idea that Facebook is a fairly designed playing field that is conducive to healthy political debate, and that whatever problems it has simply reflect the problems that exist in society as a whole.
Ellen L. Weintraub, a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission who has been an outspoken opponent of Facebook’s existing policies, told me on Thursday that she, too, was disappointed in the company’s choice.
“They have a real responsibility here, and they’re just shirking it,” Ms. Weintraub said. “They don’t want to acknowledge that something they’ve created is contributing to the decline of our democracy, but it is.”
In Facebook’s partial defense, safeguarding elections is not a single company’s responsibility, nor are tech companies the sole determinants of who gets elected. Income inequality, economic populism, immigration policy — these issues still matter, as do the media organizations that shape perception of them. I also don’t believe, as some Facebook critics do, that Mr. Zuckerberg is doing this for the money. Facebook’s political advertising revenue is a tiny portion of its overall revenue, and even a decision to bar political ads entirely wouldn’t materially change the company’s financial health.