Facebook recently released a response to its oversight board’s recommendations surrounding the suspension of former President Donald Trump’s account, which included a minor change to a vague policy known as the “newsworthiness” exemption. Although the change may appear to level the playing field between politicians and other users, in reality it will do little, and Facebook will still not be fact-checking posts from politicians, allowing political leaders to get away with lying on the platform.
The newsworthiness exemption allowed posts that violate Facebook’s community standards — such as hateful or violent statements — to remain on the platform if they came from politicians or were otherwise deemed newsworthy. Previously, Facebook said it treated all content from politicians as newsworthy and left it on the platform even if it contained hate speech or violent content. The one exception to this exception was if Facebook determined the content could “lead to real world violence and harm.”
In the new policy, the newsworthiness exemption can still be granted to politicians, but Facebook claims it will “not presume that any person’s speech is inherently newsworthy, including by politicians”; instead, it will consider whether the specific post is newsworthy by looking at various factors — including the fact that it came from a politician. Facebook garnered positive press for appearing to crack down on politicians abusing the platform, but the change could have little real-world impact.
And importantly, Facebook did not commit to altering its practice of not fact-checking posts from politicians — a primary way the company grants politicians special status on the platform.
It’s important to differentiate between the kinds of content the newsworthiness exemption and the fact-checking network are meant to address, in order to understand why this policy change might be misunderstood.
The newsworthiness exemption applies only to content that violates Facebook’s community standards, which cover issues including hate speech and incitement of violence. The standards generally do not address misinformation (with some recent exceptions for COVID-19 misinformation). Meanwhile, Facebook’s independent fact-checking network is tasked with flagging misinformation. But Facebook specified in 2019 that politicians’ posts are not eligible for fact-checking because it would not be “an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”
So while the “newsworthiness” policy change could in theory result in more community standards enforcement on hateful or violent posts by politicians, it will do nothing to address misinformation, should they choose to spread it.
What’s more, Facebook’s community standards are already subpar and poorly enforced, so things that should be considered violations are typically not deemed so by the platform. For example, Trump’s comment in response to protests of police brutality, in which he said “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” was left on the platform not because it was granted a newsworthiness exemption, but because Facebook determined it did not violate the standards against inciting violence.
Here’s what the new policy means: Facebook will no longer automatically assume that politicians' posts that bully, harass, or intimidate others are newsworthy and thus that they should necessarily remain on the platform. Instead, Facebook will decide whether the post is newsworthy by considering details including its provenance from a politician. The new policy does not guarantee that politicians won’t use the platform to try to incite violence, as Trump did during last year's protests against police brutality. And it also does not address posts from politicians that contain misinformation.
If Facebook were serious about preventing politicians from abusing the platform, or at least making it harder for them to do so, the company would commit to fact-checking politicians’ posts and overhauling its lax community standards. The minor change to the newsworthiness policy is a distraction from the larger structural problems on the platform.