Facebook to end special treatment for politicians after Trump ban

Facebook intends to end its content moderation policy that exempts politicians from the same rules that apply to other users, a dramatic shift that could have global ramifications for how elected officials use the social network.

The change, which Facebook is expected to announce as soon as Friday, comes after the Oversight Board — an independent group funded by Facebook to review its most contentious rulings — confirmed Facebook’s decision to suspend former President Donald Trump but criticized the special treatment it gives politicians, stating that the “same rules should apply to all users.” Facebook was given until June 5th to respond to the board’s policy recommendations.

According to two people familiar with the changes, Facebook also intends to shed light on the secretive system of strikes it assigns to accounts that violate its content rules. This will include informing users when they have received a strike for violating its rules, which could result in suspension. BuzzFeed News and other outlets have previously reported on instances in which Facebook employees intervened to prevent political pages from facing harsh penalties under the strikes policy.

Facebook will also start disclosing when it uses a special newsworthiness exemption to keep content from politicians and others that would otherwise violate its rules up.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on this story.

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The changes are notable for Facebook, which has traditionally taken a hands-off approach to what elected officials say on its platform. Executives at the company, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have stated that they should not be in the business of policing political speech. They have argued that such speech is already among the most scrutinized in the world and that private companies should not censor what politicians say to their constituents.

For several years, Facebook has kept a list of political accounts that are not subject to the same fact-checking or content-moderation processes as other users. According to The Information, in 2019, a group of employees asked for the list to be dissolved, citing internal research that showed people were more likely to believe falsehoods if they were shared by an elected official.

That same year, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, publicly clarified the policy, saying, “we will treat political speech as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard.” Aside from explicitly illegal content like child pornography, Facebook would only take action against political comments if they could credibly lead to physical harm or discourage voting.

Content from other sources, such as news links or videos, that politicians share has already been subjected to fact-checking, a step that can significantly reduce the distribution of posts. Posts made directly by politicians will still be subject to review by Facebook’s network of independent fact-checkers, according to the company’s new policies. However, for the first time, they will be subject to the same set of rules for things like bullying that Facebook’s moderators apply to other users.

When Trump used Facebook to stoke division after the murder of George Floyd and later praised his supporters as they attempted a violent insurgency at the US Capitol in January, the hands-off policy for political speech faced intense backlash. In India, Facebook’s most populous country by user base, the company has been chastised for failing to respond to violent comments made by members of the ruling party. Under the new policy for politicians, Facebook may still use its newsworthiness exemption to keep a post up that would otherwise be removed. It will, however, commit to disclosing when it does so.

Following Trump’s followers’ January attack on the Capitol, Facebook indefinitely blocked his ability to post and referred the decision to the Oversight Board, a group of human rights experts it established to make policy enforcement decisions. The board responded by saying that Facebook was wrong to take special action against Trump’s account because its public policies do not specify when it can block someone’s ability to post indefinitely.

On May 5th, the board of directors wrote to Facebook, urging the company to “address widespread confusion about how decisions relating to influential users are made.” Facebook was given 30 days to respond to the board’s recommendations and six months to finish its investigation into Trump’s account.

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