Last week’s announcement by Facebook that it would keep former U.S. President Donald Trump off the platform for another two years also included a few tweaks to the way the platform moderates speech by politicians. It laid out a more concrete explanation of how it would punish political leaders who violate platform policies during “times of civil unrest and ongoing violence,” and promised to speed up its review of potentially violating content during these designated periods.
Missing from the announcement was any change to the exemption that bars its Third-Party Fact-Checking partners to fact-check the posts of political leaders. (Full Disclosure: Facebook requires its fact-checking partners to be verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles).
Facebook has long argued that political leaders are some of the most scrutinized figures in society, and reasoned that they should be exempt from fact-checking so as to not limit their speech and deprive citizens of hearing from their elected officials. However, Facebook acknowledged in its statement that “public figures often have broad influence across our platform and may therefore pose a greater risk of harm when they violate our Community Standards or Community Guidelines.”
Fact-checkers and researchers have cited this harm in the past as an argument for why Facebook should remove its fact-checking exemption for politicians. In fact, we talked about this in the Factually edition that followed the Oversight Board’s decision in early May.
Responding to reports about this most recent announcement, Gordon Farrer, chief academic investigator for the Australian outlet RMIT ABC Fact Check, argued the ban should be lifted to help improve the public discourse.
“Everyone needs to agree on the set of facts used in public debate — especially during election campaigns — otherwise people from different ends of the political spectrum are unable to understand each other’s worldview,” Farrer said. “Facts are crucial to that discourse, and reputable journalism — especially journalism conducted by reliable, trusted fact-checkers — is a necessary part of establishing those facts.”
However, Facebook’s exemption may (unintentionally) protect fact-checkers from the political fallout of their work being attached to a politician’s post. Fact-checkers in Brazil are facing legal battles over their fact-checks of publications viewed as deferential to the current government; and Twitter, while not a fact-checker, got a visit from police in India for merely labeling a ruling party spokesperson’s tweet.
Still, fact-checkers have argued that everyone’s speech should be treated equally on social media regardless of political status. As Jency Jacob, managing editor of the Indian fact-checking outlet BOOM, put it, “Our fact-checking principles do not change and remain the same for everyone.”