Though social media platforms finally kicked off Donald Trump after he incited a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, it was hardly the first time he had crossed the line. Facebook, for most of Trump’s presidency, allowed his incendiary rhetoric about opponents and world leaders, brazen bigotry, and conspiracy theories because the company deemed it “newsworthy.” Such content might be ugly or even dangerous, Facebook acknowledged, but if the president of the United States was the one posting it, it was permitted if “the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm.” This approach effectively translated into a blanket exemption for Trump and other public officials.
“I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or news in a democracy,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2019 speech at Georgetown University.
Now, though, the tech giant appears to have reconsidered—for the most part. Facebook is planning to end its broad “newsworthiness” carve-out for politicians, forcing leaders in the United States and around the world to abide by the same content standards as other users. As the Verge noted, the coming policy shift is a significant reversal from the company’s typical “hands-off approach” and could have significant implications for how public figures use the platform. Trump and others on the far-right in the U.S. and abroad have long used the platform to spread hate and disinformation. The platform has even been used as a tool for genocide. But under the new approach, politicians and other public figures previously protected by the newsworthiness exception will primarily be subject to the same rules as everybody else.
The shift comes after Facebook’s “Supreme Court,” the quasi-independent body Facebook established in 2020 to review company decisions, in May concluded that the company was within its rights to suspend Trump’s account following the January 6 insurrection. The Oversight Board, however, criticized Facebook’s leaders for the lack of transparency in their decision-making and ordered them to disclose how they handle public officials’ content. “Facebook cannot make up the rules as it goes,” the board wrote last month, adding that the “‘newsworthiness’ of a public figure’s remarks should never take priority over urgent action to prevent harm.” The board gave Facebook six months to decide if Trump would be allowed back on the platform and until June 5 to implement its policy recommendations.
While Facebook’s new plan would mostly force politicians to adhere to its content moderation rules, there’s a catch: It’s not doing away with its “newsworthiness” exemption entirely. The company will reportedly continue to allow certain content from politicians to remain, even if it is harmful, if it decides it’s in the public interest. Facebook will be more transparent, disclosing when it applies the exception to a post, according to reports. But it’s possible that leaving room for exceptions, even if Facebook does away with blanket protections for political figures, could perpetuate some of the same problems. Facebook will still be drawing a line between what is and isn’t newsworthy.
Still, the new plan is one of the company’s largest steps yet toward curbing the hate speech and disinformation that has proliferated on the platform for years and helps formalize a decision-making process that the Oversight Board previously slammed as “arbitrary.”
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