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David Simon on Facebook and Twitter: ‘What they fail to police is ruining the world’

Max Zahn
Reporter

Lies can spread unpoliced on Facebook (FB) — as long as they appear in a paid advertisement bought by a political candidate and they don’t lead to imminent harm like keeping voters away from the polls. Critics calling for a change in that policy were rebuked on Wednesday, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated the stance in a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren thrust Facebook’s political ad policy into the center of the 2020 campaign last week, when she ran an intentionally false ad on the platform and later criticized the company for “taking money to promote lies.”

In a newly released interview, taped last Tuesday, a top television writer and producer said the failure of social media companies Facebook and Twitter (TWTR) to moderate false content is having calamitous effects.

“What they fail to police is ruining the world,” says David Simon, the producer of shows such as “The Wire,” “Treme,” and “The Deuce,” who has been banned from Twitter multiple times for offending content. “There's no ethical strand that is tethered to truth as a value.”

Simon criticized Facebook and Twitter for moderating inconsequential posts and letting influential ones remain on the site.

“The simple vulgarities and obscenities, or mere sarcasm, that they'll chase and run down with great vigor mean nothing,” Simon says.

“What they choose to police is meaningless, and what they are incapable of policing is because they have no newsroom,” he adds.

‘Truth has been devalued’

Reluctant to judge veracity on its platform, Facebook partners with fact-checking organizations that vet ads and posts, an arrangement that began after the 2016 presidential election. False posts receive a mark to alert users and get a reduction in distribution. Meanwhile, false advertisements are banned from the platform, with the exception of those purchased by political candidates.

President Donald Trump has garnered attention for ads posted on Facebook that make false allegations about Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

In response to a question about the factors that led to the rise of Trump, Simon says, “I think truth has been devalued in the most incredible way.”

“What if Goebbels had had the capacity to sidestep, you know, even the world press on a daily basis? To completely sidestep the world press,” he adds, referring to Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. “How much further might that message have traveled unimpeded? And we're in that point of untried, untested waters.”

Political ads generate less than 5% of the company’s revenue, Reuters reported last year.

“The very small percent of our business that’s made up of political ads does not come anywhere close to justifying the kind of controversy” caused by the ad policy, Zuckerberg told members of the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.

He then defended the policy on free speech grounds.

“In a democracy, it's important for people to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” he said.

Simon is best known for creating the HBO show “The Wire,” which ran for five seasons in the mid-2000s. His other shows include “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero,” and most recently “The Deuce,” starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Simon won an Emmy in 2000, and has been nominated for four since. He previously worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and is the author of “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” which chronicles his year with detectives from the homicide unit of Baltimore’s police department.

Simon made the comments during a conversation that aired in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Actor/executive producer James Franco, left, and executive producer David Simon participate in "The Deuce" panel during the HBO Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Concerns about false and inauthentic posts on Facebook reached a fever pitch after the 2016 presidential election, the outcome of which some have attributed to a disinformation campaign on the platform carried out by a Russian intelligence agency.

The site drew criticism early this year for allowing opponents of vaccination to spread false information about the treatment, and in May, for permitting distorted videos of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to be viewed millions of times. (Facebook reduced the distribution of such videos and attached a warning to them, but did not remove them.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has sharply criticized the misinformation policy and called for the breakup of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

Asked about who he supports in the Democratic presidential primary, Simon said, “I've been speaking well of Warren for a long time now.”

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.

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