An Open Letter to Facebook

Forbes 3 weeks ago
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At House Hearing
WASHINGTON, DC: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House ... [+] Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill earlier this year. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

I see from the news that you’re enduring a storm of criticism. I understand how you must feel. You don’t want others telling you how to run your business. I’m not about to join that chorus. Instead, I’d like to reminisce a bit about my own adventures with advertising—and you might hear in my own experience a way to calm the waters without violating any of your principles. What I used to do, if you were to adopt similar practices, wouldn’t require you to turn down revenue from genuine advertisers. You wouldn’t be violating anyone’s right to free speech. And, best of all, you wouldn’t lose face. 

I know whereof I speak. I spent my entire career in advertising at one company: Young & Rubicam. I rose from an entry-level job to become Chairman and CEO. All along the way, I learned that the only way to produce effective advertising was to back it up with proof that what we said in a commercial was true and from a reputable organization. 

This was standard practice decades ago. We took it for granted because we believed in the ideal of truth in advertising. At the time, all three of the major TV networks required us to back up any competitive claims or demonstrations in a commercial with corroborating data. In essence, we policed our advertising. This wasn’t entirely voluntary, though we were happy to do it. There was a “clearance department” at all of the networks at TV stations—a checkpoint on behalf of truth, basically. It was an independent function with no inherent interest in approving or disapproving content, but we had to have corroboration for any claims of fact made in the advertising we submitted on behalf of our clients. 

In the context of Facebook, I’m thinking of content you are paid to post, not contributions of Facebook members. I know you are working to fact-check Facebook overall. Last I heard, earlier this year, you had 43 fact-checking organizations culling through 24 different languages to red-flag content that appeared to be misleading. Algorithms and human beings sift through posts for falsehoods, and these researchers produce a clarifying “explanatory article” to balance whatever claims are made. Users are notified that their post is questionable, and it will appear less prominently in feeds as a result. All of this, to be effective, has to be costly, time-consuming and extremely difficult considering the quantity of content worldwide. What I’m thinking about wouldn’t add much at all to this expense. 

Here’s the interesting thing. When it comes to the advertising you accept, the easiest way to eliminate lies is weed out the liars before they even start talking—before the ads are even created. At Young & Rubicam, as part of our process in some 80 countries with many local clients, whenever someone hired us to create advertising and buy time for it on the airwaves, we started with the most obvious, fundamental information. Who were they? Where were they located? What was their phone number? We made sure they were actually a legitimate organization; that they were who they said they were. We had some of the most famous brands in the world in our client base, so this wasn’t entirely necessary with someone like Proctor & Gamble. But it was policy, and it mattered. 

We had to have a way to get to them, to reach them, to identify and verify who they were. It couldn’t be anonymous. So, right out of the gate, most advertising clients who would have been trying to communicate in a fraudulent way were screened out.  

Just with that simple requirement alone we eliminated most of the bogus advertising that we might have inadvertently generated. In those days, the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, tracking down and verifying information like this required more legwork than it does now. With the Internet, all of this has been streamlined. Especially with political advertising. It wouldn’t require you to subcontract with a team of thousands of fact-checkers. Simply screening out fake organizations submitting ads would be enough to eliminate most of the lies. 

I understand the appeal of a free platform where anyone can say whatever they want to say. And when it comes to general content, it’s a much more delicate matter—there are good arguments for letting all voices have their turn, regardless of the truth of what they say. But with advertising, it’s different—and much easier to create guardrails for integrity. 

It may be hard to believe, but the advertising community at one point even banded together to eliminate negative advertising. (These days, that would mean almost no political advertising at all, wouldn’t it?) The bottom line, though, was that we had to prove what we said in a commercial was factual. Even for Endust, no less, just a simple household cleaner, we needed to demonstrate with research the competitive claims about how much better our product worked. And that was from a well-known, reputable company. 

Put this ball into the client’s court: when ads are submitted, just require them to be accompanied by corroboration for factual claims they contain. In addition, if you weed out the fraudulent organizations trying to buy ad space at the start, most the lies will be eliminated. 

The public pressure against Facebook is intense and it is growing. I just watched the documentary, “The Great Hack.” I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s the story of Cambridge Analytics and their role in our 2016 election, as well as the Brexit referendum. It is an ugly realty of abusing people’s private information to affect major political outcomes. Facebook did not come off well in this story. 

Regardless, democracy and our elections have been and are today being manipulated. I suggest it will be better for Facebook to find an effective and practical solution before the government feels the need to step in. No one wants to see that, but the status quo will lead us there. 

Best wishes,

Peter


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