After complaints from an anti-abortion group, Facebook appears ready to capitulate to right-wing media pressure once again.
On August 30, the anti-abortion group Live Action tweeted that Facebook had rated several of its videos as well as content from its founder and president, Lila Rose, as inaccurate. The rating was applied after a third-party fact check from medical professionals disputed a claim in several Live Action videos that “abortion is never medically necessary.” As a result, Facebook limited the reach of content from Live Action and Rose, which Live Action then characterized as “clear evidence of bias and discrimination” as well as “an outrageous act of censorship.” Live Action also claimed Facebook had “gone out of their way to find pro-abortion activists whose public opposition to our views is indisputable” to conduct the fact check. The “pro-abortion activists” Live Action targeted are abortion providers who cited a variety of medical and scientific sources to support their claims.
In response, Facebook removed the fact checks and promised to investigate Live Action's concerns.
Before Facebook pulled the checks, right-wing media and other anti-abortion outlets had predictably jumped into action, amplifying the claims and attacking Facebook for perceived bias. Media Research Center wrote that Facebook had picked “a side in the abortion debate and is actively working to suppress pro-life content” by limiting the reach of Live Action’s content -- claims that were echoed by The Washington Times, Breitbart, The Christian Post, and more. Several conservative lawmakers also came to Live Action’s defense, sending a letter to Facebook alleging that the platform’s “pattern of censorship has [again] reared its ugly head.” Rose herself appeared on Fox News on two separate occasions to discuss the incident.
This is far from the first time that Live Action and broader conservative groups have alleged social media platforms or tech companies are biased or engaged in “censorship” of right-wing content. Live Action in particular has consistently used allegations of censorship to energize supporters and make fundraising appeals. However, the data consistently shows a different picture: Conservative pages perform as well as, if not better than, left-leaning pages -- particularly in the context of abortion-related content.
Claims of conservative censorship are bad-faith allegations designed to bully platforms into allowing the spread of inaccurate or extreme content. Nevertheless, Facebook has already capitulated many times and appears poised to do so once again. On September 11, after the lawmakers sent their letter, Facebook announced that it was “removing the relevant fact checks” while the organization’s fact-checking partner investigated “whether the fact checkers who rated this content did so by following procedures designed to ensure impartiality.”
Facebook has long struggled with consistent enforcement of its content moderation and fact-checking policies -- a concern that recently inspired the production of a report (overseen by former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl) examining right-wing bias claims. Notably, the report contained no data supporting these allegations and merely echoed right-wing media’s bad-faith claims. Facebook has tried to ramp up its fact-checking capacity, and now it is also preparing to launch a human-edited news tab -- a venture The Atlantic labeled a “chance to reboot its approach to news” and a potential “act of atonement for the company’s attention-optimization strategy, as well as its now-defunct Trending Topics product,” both of which have contributed to the spread of misinformation.
Facebook’s handling of Live Action’s right-wing media-fueled complaints may already be testing the platform’s wherewithal to defend its content moderation and fact-checking policies. As Casey Newton wrote for The Verge:
So one letter from Congress later, Rose’s false claim that abortions are never medically necessary is now free to circulate on Facebook until further notice. You can probably imagine what lesson the senators will take away from this.
What happens when a story about abortion that senators dislike appears prominently in the new news tab? Will Facebook respect its editors’ news judgment and back them up? Or will it bow to the sensitivities of lawmakers? I understand the reluctance to let tech platforms shape the boundaries of public discourse. But I’d still rather have journalists deciding which journalism people should read than congressmen.
On September 12, Rose tweeted that Facebook had removed the organization’s violations but warned that the group “may be penalized again” pending the results of the investigation. It remains to be seen then if Facebook will once again capitulate to pressure from right-wing media and conservative lawmakers.
As Daniel Grossman, one of the abortion providers who helped fact-check Live Action’s claim told The Hill: “It's just very interesting that this is a question about medical care but it's turned into a debate with politicians and advocates on one side and physicians on the other. … At the moment, the politicians and advocates seem to be winning.”
Update (10/18/19): On September 27, Facebook’s fact-checking partner The International Fact-Checking Network concluded an investigation into Live Action’s claim. According to the announcement, “An independent assessor" reviewed the fact-checkers' work and found their "conclusions to be fair and accurate.” The assessor also concluded that the “decision to fact-check the claim fits with the mission of the organization to fact check claims about important topics, and shows no evidence of bias in the selection process.”
In spite of this finding, Facebook did not restore the fact check to Live Action’s page.