The PEN Pod: On Political Ads, the Children’s Canon, and Ongoing Crackdowns in Myanmar with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, Suzanne reflects on the use and misuse of advertisements on social media, the racial stereotypes in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books and how much of our canon reflects outdated attitudes, and this week’s deadly crackdown in Myanmar. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 14:09 mark).
Facebook announced this week that it would lift its ban on so-called political ads. They originally put that ban in place to stem the tide of disinformation around the election, or at least that’s what they said. From what we know, is suspending advertising the right call from a free speech point of view, and considering how disinformation hasn’t really gone anywhere, does this mean Facebook is lowering its defenses?
I don’t think they’re obligated to run political ads. Twitter has banned political ads on the platform—they did so in the run-up to the election, and I don’t think there is much talk of them reversing course. When it comes to Facebook, there are arguments on both sides. Many people pointed out that it is often the lesser known candidate who can begin to build momentum through Facebook ads, which relative to radio and television ads, are much cheaper. Facebook can offer somebody a foothold and therefore can be a democratic catalyst in the sense that you can get yourself started there.
On the other hand, we know that Facebook ads have absolutely been weaponized, which is evident in the context of the 2016 election, where Russian internet trolls were masquerading as organizers for Black Lives Matter in different states across the country and inviting people to rallies and events and to join Facebook groups under utterly false and misleading pretenses. We’ve also seen it in the context of Brexit—those ads were targeted at a micro level to reach the most vulnerable voters with tendentious, certainly leading questionable, dubious claims that never saw the light of day until the referendum was over with, because they were so narrowly targeted that nobody who was in a position to rebut the ad ever even saw it.
The dangers are clear, and that’s what led Facebook to—in the run-up to the election—impose this ban in the days before the vote and the days after the vote. They are sloppy in how they implemented it. This is not a highly refined exercise of human judgment. We’ve even seen this at PEN America. I can remember one time, it was a couple of years ago, with a similar policy, we had an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, and it got flagged as a political post. Eventually we got it through, but not without some haggling back and forth, and there are other ads where this happened as well.
“I think one of the most important things that [Facebook has] said is they are now ensuring that when paid ads are placed on the platform, they know exactly who the beneficial payer is, who is behind the ad, do they have a U.S. address, is it a known organization. This is because we’ve seen the proliferation of these very shadowy—whether it’s foreign or domestic—actors and entities that obscure their true identity in order to purvey messages and try to influence our politics in insidious ways.”
I know we had an ad for a post-election Annual General Meeting event, and they raised questions about whether it was a political ad, which really underscores their over-reliance on artificial intelligence and machine learning to track what ads fall afoul with their policy. It’s that blurry line between issue ads and political ads that can sweep up a lot of content from advocacy organizations like ours. I don’t think anybody would construe these ads as straight up political, in the sense of what it is that they’re trying to target and the harm that they’re trying to prevent.
I think one of the most important things that they have said is they are now ensuring that when paid ads are placed on the platform, they know exactly who the beneficial payer is, who is behind the ad, do they have a U.S. address, is it a known organization. This is because we’ve seen the proliferation of these very shadowy—whether it’s foreign or domestic—actors and entities that obscure their true identity in order to purvey messages and try to influence our politics in insidious ways. I hope Facebook is pouring a lot more resources into ensuring it knows who its advertisers are, and I also hope they are serious about a truth in advertising policy, which you would require, for example, drug ads or ads making claims about health and safety in relation to food to be fact-checked.
I think when it comes to political ads, if there are demonstrable false statements and claims, that those should be reviewed ahead of time—not just subject to a system whereby if somebody reports it, there is scrutiny and perhaps it’s taken down, but rather if it’s a paid ad, not letting it go up in the first place without some review to ensure that it meets with basic parameters of veracity and it doesn’t amount to disinformation. I don’t think this is inherently negative stuff, but I think it’s all gonna depend on how it’s implemented and what safeguards are in place.
“I think it’s a tough issue, but I’m sort of sad to see [Dr. Seuss’s] books disappear entirely. I wonder if there might be a way to accompany them with a thoroughly contextualized look at what some of the questionable elements are. . . While that might work well with Mark Twain and talking about some of the aspects of his work that are outdated or that reflect racist attitudes, I definitely think it’s tougher when you’re reading a story to a three-year-old or a four-year-old and they’re looking at pictures.”
Let’s move on from Facebook to children’s books. Conservative media this week was afire about yet another instance of what folks were labeling “cancel culture.” This time, it was over Dr. Seuss. There are a lot of twists to this story, but one was that the children’s author’s estate announced that it would stop publication of some of the beloved late author’s titles because of their portrayals of racist imagery. It’s confusing here. Who is being accused of canceling whom, and is this an instance of the author’s estate caving to “political correctness” or “cancel culture?”
It’s sort of a classic instance of politicized grandstanding, and conservatives who love to point a finger at the Biden administration suggesting that somehow the president has done something wrong by not mentioning Dr. Seuss at a Read Across America event. It’s an event that many of his predecessors never even marked at all, so there is no obligation for every U.S. president to herald Dr. Seuss from office on a given day of the year. That’s just a silly claim.
The larger question of what happens with some of these books is a tricky one.Personally, And to Think That I saw It on Mulberry Street was a childhood favorite of mine. I remember the book and the illustrations vividly. I can conjure up that offensive image of a very stereotyped Chinese man that appeared in one of the illustrations. I definitely see why it’s a problematic image. It was a very exoticized, old-fashioned notion of what somebody in the ’40s or ’50s would have thought a person from China might be like, never having perhaps traveled there or even met anyone.
There are reports that Dr. Seuss himself was sensitive to these issues, and was trying to break down racial barriers. At times, he would revisit work years later and see the ways in which stereotypes were reflected. If you think about it, so much of our canon and works from the past reflect outdated attitudes, and attitudes that are in some way harmful. Think of all the images of women in bikinis in children’s literature, films, and elsewhere, and the conceptions that were installed in generations of girls about what a woman’s body should look like, and what the consequences of that have been. Charles Blow wrote a very affecting piece about what it was like growing up Black in America and just seeing white imagery everywhere and Black characters caricatured and portrayed in a negative or outdated light.
I think it’s a tough issue, but I’m sort of sad to see these books disappear entirely. I wonder if there might be a way to accompany them with a thoroughly contextualized look at what some of the questionable elements are, to allow a parent or a teacher to spark a conversation with a young child, but I also recognize they are children’s books. While that might work well with Mark Twain and talking about some of the aspects of his work that are outdated or that reflect racist attitudes, I definitely think it’s tougher when you’re reading a story to a three-year-old or a four-year-old and they’re looking at pictures. You can’t expect them to absorb and contextualize in a way that an adult might. I see this as kind of a little bit of a sad outcome, but I think absent a better solution—which I’m not sure exactly what it would be—I hope the books somehow don’t disappear entirely, at least that people who want to see them and want to understand what Dr. Seuss stood for, the positive and the negative, have an opportunity to do so.
“You [now] have cell phone cameras, video, and other imagery that may make it harder or more reputationally damaging [for Myanmar’s security forces] to crack down to quite the degree that they have in the past. This is a very impervious regime, and they’ve demonstrated it with Aung San Suu Kyi—just after she wins with a large margin, to have the audacity to simply detain her, hold her incommunicado. . . What we see clearly is that, while there was a democratic interlude and democratic norms were taking hold, it was even more fragile than I think anybody quite realized.”
Suzanne, I just want to go last to Myanmar. Dozens of protesters were killed this week as security forces seem to be escalating their crackdown, and yet demonstrators are staying in the streets, showing incredible resilience. We’ve seen this play out in Myanmar before. Is there anything different happening this time?
There is a real sense of deja vu: protesters out in the streets, people being killed, rounded up in large numbers. For us here at PEN America, one of the most disturbingly, evocative aspects is in 2018. We honored two Reuters reporters who had been arrested for investigating and exposing a massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine State. They were imprisoned, ultimately tried and sentenced despite a very powerful international campaign that we waged alongside many others, insisting that they were doing their jobs as professional journalists, and in fact bringing really salient and important stories to public and global attention. That was the crime for which they were convicted, and then ultimately we did have success in securing their freedom, which is incredibly gratifying, getting the chance to meet them in person.
The news that we got this week, that a reporter from The Associated Press—or somebody presumably doing very similar work—has now been picked up and is being charged with an offense to public order that could carry a sentence of three years or more, is just deeply alarming. It’s a sense of, “Here we go again.” I don’t think anybody can be sure what it would take to get the Myanmar military to pull back from the brink.
The one thing that has changed is although they’re throttling back the internet, you have cell phone cameras, video, and other imagery that may make it harder or more reputationally damaging to crack down to quite the degree that they have in the past. This is a very impervious regime, and they’ve demonstrated it with Aung San Suu Kyi—just after she wins with a large margin, to have the audacity to simply detain her, hold her incommunicado, not even tell the NLD, the majority party, where she is being imprisoned, that is how they operate. What we see clearly is that, while there was a democratic interlude and democratic norms were taking hold, it was even more fragile than I think anybody quite realized.