Today, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel announced in a CNBC interview that Snapchat has a plan to fact check political ads in an effort to curb misinformation problems currently plaguing many social media sites. Snap will not run ads that its fact checkers have determined are fake, and they’ve banned “political advertising that intends to mislead, deceive, or violate the company’s terms of service”. For those who have been following along, this represents a sharp departure from Facebook’s recently stated policy of allowing all political advertising to run without the hassle of fact checking, as a means of promoting what they say is free speech on the platform. And last week, Twitter announced a sort of middle ground political ad policy in which certain advertisers are banned and issue ads are strictly governed.
Others have weighed in on the problems with banning certain issues or even defining political advertising in the first place. Tarleton Gillespie has a particularly good article on the topic, so I won’t belabor his already excellent points here. Instead, I’d like to focus on one aspect of Evan Spiegel’s announcement: A seemingly innocuous point, in fact.
In his announcement with CNBC, Spiegel compared Snap to a cable TV network.
For years, critical social media scholars, popular commentators, journalists, and technology critics have argued – unsuccessfully – that social media content based sites like Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are not simply technology intermediaries but MEDIA SITES. We have compared them to broadcasters, highlighted the similarities between their business models and the business models of media companies (they make money delivering eyeballs to advertisers via content) and we have lamented the fact that these essentially new media monopolies are stressing older media business fundamental to keeping institutions like local journalism alive. Throughout all of this, social media CEOs (and Mark Zuckerberg in particular) have insisted they are not media companies, but rather a technology that facilitates connections between people.
Evan Spiegel just changed all that.
I’m not sure anyone else will notice or care about his analogy to a cable TV network, but I think it’s important. In fact checking political ads, or claiming he has a team to do so, Spiegel is certainly attempting to differentiate snap from the competition. I think that by openly and authentically comparing snap to a cable TV network he has indeed differentiated himself from his competitors.
Why is this important? Because the analogy of cable TV suggests that, contrary to what we hear from Zuckerberg and co., Spiegel recognizes the responsibility that platforms have for the content that is boosted by their networks. He shows that he understands the complicated relationship that his platform actually has with public discourse (instead, like Zukerberg, wishing for a relationship to an imaginary form of free speech and democratic deliberation that simply doesn’t exist). Spiegal has shown that he understands the growing importance of social media advertising to public debate, and is illustrating that he doesn’t take his responsibility lightly.
Like the decision to fact check political ads in the first place, I don’t think this attitude will magically boost Snapchat’s user base or revenue. But I do hope that this move begins to put pressure on the other platforms to take responsibility for their role in malicious content. Many founders may have started their platforms when they were still basically kids, but it’s time for both the founders and the platforms to grow up, and it is my hope that this move from snapchat helps lead the way.