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Facebook's Hands-Off Approach To Content Posted By Politicians


This week, Facebook made clear that content posted by politicians on the platform won't be fact-checked or flagged even if that content is false, misleading or violates the site's community standards for decency. YouTube announced a similar strategy this week. Twitter did so back in June but said it would warn users if a tweet has violated the company's policies. This is the latest answer by social media companies to the ongoing debate about how they address their role in political discourse.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Cat Zakrzewski, who covers technology policy for the Washington Post. She's with us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

CAT ZAKRZEWSKI: Thanks for having me here.

MARTIN: So, as I understand it, these standards are different than they apply to paid advertising. So what's Facebook's rationale for this?

ZAKRZEWSKI: So what Facebook is saying is we don't want to be a referee for content on our site when it comes to politics. And so they're saying that any politicians' posts - and that's an elected official or a person running for elected office - we're going to treat those posts differently than regular consumers. But when it comes to paid advertising, they're still going to subject those posts to its community standards and guidelines. And that's because Facebook feels it has a bit more of a responsibility for the content that people are paying them for.

MARTIN: The Facebook vice president, Nick Clegg, said in a blog post and later followed up in a speech on Tuesday that speech from politicians is newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard. And he also emphasized - remember, Nick Clegg is a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, so he kind of knows firsthand what it's like to be in that position. You know, but others have argued that, you know, politicians, like everybody else, should be accountable for their words when he's obviously been challenged on this. And what do they say?

ZAKRZEWSKI: So Facebook's argument is it's not our role to be the one challenging the politicians. Other politicians can challenge them. The media, places like NPR, The Washington Post - they can fact-check these politicians when they make statements like that. But the problem is that this isn't a policy that's just applied in the U.S., where there's a strong free press. They're rolling this out around the world. And also...

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Does this policy apply around the world, where, in fact, political leaders have incited violence against citizens which has, in fact, been carried out? We have seen this.

ZAKRZEWSKI: So it applies around the world. But Facebook did say that they are going to at times make exceptions where the harms could outweigh the news value of content that politicians are posting. So, like you mentioned, inciting violence - that would be an area that Facebook may still take a post down or limit the spread of a post from a politician. The other, you know, factors that they'll take into account - is this country currently at war? Is this happening during an election? So they said in cases where, you know, there might be different laws around free press or a different level of political stability, they're going to try to look at this holistically.

MARTIN: The Facebook vice president, Nick Clegg, brought up the idea of breaking up Facebook, which has been brought up by a number of people, including some people who were there at the founding of Facebook. And this is being talked about as they are facing a number of congressional investigations and so forth. What did Clegg say about that? What was the company's response to that?

ZAKRZEWSKI: So in general, the company's stance on the calls to break up the company have been, if you want us to address these issues around election security, if you want us to address disinformation, we can do a better job of that if we're a bigger company and have more resources at our disposal to do that. But at the same time, you know, the company also is in this position where the whole reason we're having this conversation is because of how much power they have concentrated in one unit.

MARTIN: That was Cat Zakrewski. She writes the technology column, The Technology 202, for The Washington Post, and she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Cat, thanks so much for talking with us.

ZAKRZEWSKI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I'd like to mention that Facebook is among NPR's recent financial supporters.