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Stick Your Landings

(Another Tuesday, another Tuesday Thought Leadership Teardown. See all the teardowns in this series.)

You’ve landed an op-ed in the New York Times, offering perhaps the definitive explanation on why it’s impossible for Facebook to ban political advertising.

That’s great, right? Isn’t that enough?

But you didn’t stick the landing. The solutions landing. And without that landing, we know why we have a problem, but not what to do about it.

Siva Vaidhanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, wrote the op-ed — and it’s not a defense of Facebook. It’s a practical, clear-eyed analysis of the impossibility of a) determining the truth or falsity of most political ads, b) deciding what is a political ad, c) fact-checking such ads in the more than 100 languages in which Facebook operates and for the 2.8 billion users it serves, and d) banning political ads and staying on the good side of many of the regimes ruling the countries in which Facebook operates.

It’s a beautiful explainer. But explainers aren’t op-eds (no matter how many explainers the Times puts in its Sunday Review). An op-ed provides the solution as well. It doesn’t leave us hanging.

Vaidhanathan doesn’t stick the landing. His solution, at least for the United States: Congress should “restrict the targeting of political ads in any medium to the level of the electoral district of the race.” Translation: ban targeting ads to African-Americans, white women, vegetable canning enthusiasts or any other segmented audience within any district. If a campaign is going to lie, it has to lie to everyone in the district, not send different lies via different ads to two people in the same neighborhood or even the same household.

But how would that stop the lying?

By making lies that go to these targeted groups and are invisible to the rest of us now visible, Vaidanathan argues:

If the same political ads were to reach everyone in a state, district or even country, they would not just appeal to marginal constituencies, might not tend toward extremism, and could not get away with lies quite so easily. Journalists, citizens and political opponents would see the same ads and could respond to them. A reason to be concerned about false claims in ads is that Facebook affords us so little opportunity to respond to ads not aimed at us personally. This proposal would limit that problem.

Not convincing. The US electorate is so polarized that turning Facebook political advertising into broadcast TV advertising — where everyone sees all the ads, and half the electorate dismisses them immediately. Fact-checking by journalists has zero impact on lying in political advertising.

Vaidhanathan seems to be counting on social shaming to cleanse the political climate of these lies. But social shame is a fast ebbing dynamic in the United States.

So, I repeat my question. Is it enough to get an op-ed in the Times that provides the definitive explanation of a problem, but fails to provide a convincing solution?

Experts explain. Authorities explain and solve.

I know it’s hard. These are really hard problems. And that’s what makes people talk about it when you pull it off — and pay attention the next time you say something.