Amidst escalating rhetoric about alleged "anti-conservative bias" on social media, Facebook has doubled down on its policies exempting (some) politicians from its ordinary fact-checking and from its hate speech rules. Facebook's policies amplify the harm that hateful politicians can do and are not necessary to advance its stated goal of ensuring that "newsworthy" false or hateful comments are subject to robust reporting and debate.
Tilting the Playing Field
"Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say? I don’t believe it would be." - Facebook's Nick Clegg
This is a galling statement from a company that is happy to be the self-appointed referee for everything that the general population may say. As we've documented extensively over the years, Facebook regularly makes value judgements about various types of speech, resulting in content removals or account deactivations. These judgements often go well beyond the legality of speech, instead representing what the company and its executives find acceptable. Of course, it's within the legal rights of a platform to make such determinations, but Facebook shouldn't pretend that it isn't an arbiter of political speech. Those subject to Facebook's rules are within their own rights to insist that the platform do better.
What is particularly troubling is for a platform to apply one set of rules to most people, and a more permissive set of rules to another group that holds more political power. In practice, Facebook has been doing this for years, but this latest announcement reaffirms the disparate treatment of different types of users and tries to spin it as a good thing.
Newsworthy Disinformation and Hate
Facebook's fact-checking does pose a danger of giving Facebook too much of a voice in public debate. It could be improved, for example, by letting users specify which sources of information they trust. But if one believes that Facebook has a good fact-checking program, does exempting politicians from the overall policy really lead to people being more aware of when they lie? Or does it mean that they will never see Facebook's usual fact-check show up for falsehoods uttered by politicians? The only clear result is that users will avoid annoying the elected officials who hold power over them.
How about hate and other speech barred by the Facebook rules? It certainly is newsworthy when a politician engages in hateful speech, but the newsworthiness goal could be achieved by documenting or denoting the speech that has been penalized rather than simply letting politicians break the rules without comment. Facebook should not give special privileges to politicians, but it certainly could create special tools to scrutinize the record of politicians and highlight the hateful, false, or violent statements they have sought to publish.
On the other hand, if Facebook's true goal is to placate politicians, such measures would surely be counterproductive.
Who Gets to Be a Politician?
Facebook suggests that it is going to avoid playing politics with content moderation decisions on its platform, but it does so more or less overtly in many contexts. Typically, those disfavored by content moderation decisions are marginalized political movements, not the US conservatives who are the most vocal in complaining about content moderation. For example, Kurdish political movements have complained of being silenced by the platform—which regularly complies with requests from increasingly authoritarian Turkey—as have Chechnyan independence movements, US leftist groups, and Brazilian political groups. Facebook also has a history of cracking down on fake accounts and anonymous users, while seemingly going soft on law enforcement officers who use sock puppet accounts.
At the most blatant, Facebook bans elected officials from parties disfavored by the US government, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), all of which appear on the government's list of designated terrorist organizations—despite not being legally obligated to do so. And in 2018, the company deleted the account of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, claiming that they were legally obliged to after the leader was placed on a sanctions list. Legal experts familiar with the law of international sanctions have disagreed, on the grounds that the sanctions are economic in nature and do not apply to speech.
Dear Facebook: Stop Favoring Politicians
If your rules are inappropriate to apply to politicians, why are they appropriate to apply to the rest of us? Creating exemptions from the rules for people who are already powerful is simply a practical concession, one that will continue to harm the least powerful people in society. It makes us wonder what Facebook's rules might look like if they considered all of their users' concerns as important as those of aggrieved politicians who want to publish disinformation and hate.