Facebook has given politicians extreme leeway with what they can post, essentially treating them as a special class of user. Now, that policy will reportedly change, perhaps as early as today.
The impetus for the change seems to be a looming deadline that Facebook’s Oversight Board gave the company regarding its suspension of former President Donald Trump’s accounts in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. The board gave Facebook until June 5 to respond to recommendations that it clarify how influential users are treated relative to the rest of the site’s user base. The forthcoming updates were first reported by The Verge.
Under the new policy, politicians’ posts would be treated like everyone else’s, at least initially. If Facebook reviews a post and decides it’s both legal and newsworthy, even if it violates site policy, moderators will allow the post to appear on the site and flag it so users can see that the newsworthiness exemption was applied. It’s unclear exactly how that newsworthiness notice will appear or what standards Facebook will use to determine newsworthiness. Ars has reached out to Facebook for comment, and we’ll update this story if we hear back.
Facebook will also introduce a “strikes” policy that could see politicians’ pages or accounts suspended if they repeatedly break the site’s rules regarding hate speech and inciting violence, for example. Presumably, strikes would not be issued if Facebook claims the newsworthiness exemption for a post. The company will also be reportedly clarifying how strikes are applied to all accounts, addressing a frequent criticism of the opaque policy. Among the changes, users will be alerted when they receive a strike.
Though Facebook’s newsworthiness policy will be updated, the company will not be altering its fact-checking policy regarding politicians, according to CNN.
Depending on the details, the new policy could represent a marked shift from Facebook’s stance toward politicians over the last several years. The social media company has been relatively hands-off when it comes to moderating politicians’ accounts and pages, claiming that anything they post that is not illegal is newsworthy and should remain on the site. Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, have insisted that politicians’ speech not be moderated the same as others’. “We will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard,” Clegg said in a 2019 post.
Trump, of course, tested those rules. Facebook banned Trump from Instagram and its eponymous service on January 7 in response to posts that voiced support for the rioters and insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol. In the wake of the attack, Facebook reviewed those and earlier posts on Trump’s accounts and determined that, in Zuckerberg’s words, “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect—and likely their intent—would be to provoke further violence.”
The company initially said the suspension would extend at least through January 20, Inauguration Day, but then clarified that it would be indefinite. On January 21, Facebook referred the matter to the Oversight Board, which issued its decision on May 5.
The Oversight Board said that Facebook should decide whether to permanently ban Trump’s page or to reinstate it—the open-ended nature of the suspension didn’t jibe with the site’s policies. Facebook has five more months to review its stance on Trump’s page.