This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
Politicians may not be above the law, but apparently they are above Facebook’s rules. The company announced this past week that public officials’ posts will generally not be removed from the platform even if they break its community standards, and neither will they be sent to third-party fact-checkers responsible for helping reduce the spread of misinformation. Outrage ensued — much of it misplaced.
Facebook stresses that its carve-out is not a carte blanche for the elected to flagrantly violate its dictates. Ads that politicians pay to have promoted on the platform must still comply with its policies, for example, and shares of previously debunked posts will still get demoted in users’ feeds. Teams of country-specific experts will be reviewing relevant posts to weigh whether the public interest in people seeing them outweighs any harm they may do, with a particularly close eye on incitements to violence. Still, the core of the proclamation remains the same: Politicians deserve special treatment. The question is whether that is a bad thing.
Critics claim that officials ought to be subject to the same enforcement criteria as everyone else, if not stricter. What the powerful say from their bully pulpits is likely to have a bigger impact than what an average Joe says from his living-room couch, after all. Critics also contend that Facebook has a perverse incentive to treat politicians delicately — because they run expensive ad campaigns on the platform, and because they have the ability to launch, say, menacing antitrust inquiries with seemingly unlimited reach.
But it’s precisely because it comes from a bully pulpit that the worst of politicians’ speech is usually newsworthy. Americans should want full information about the people they may vote for, and they should also want those representatives held to account for what they say. If the most repulsive comments disappear from one of the world’s most powerful information intermediaries, accountability becomes that much harder. The same goes for the allegation that Facebook is catering to its most valued, and valuable, customers. If politicians can work a referee that easily, why invite Facebook to call more games?
Still, there’s a lot Facebook could do better, most of all when it comes to transparency. Even as it leaves politicians’ posts up, for example, it could label them if, under any other authorship, they would have merited removal. And when officials are perpetuating hoaxes that Facebook’s fact-checkers are otherwise comfortable calling out as falsehoods, the company could restrict their reach just as it does when the lies are coming from plebeians, or at least add annotations offering context rather than throw up its arms. The key question is how a company with immense power can accept responsibility, too — without giving itself even more power in the process.