You’d think that it would be an easy call for Facebook to remove and block videos that are indisputably altered to fool the public.
You would be wrong.
The British news site the Guardian reported Friday that Facebook had refused to remove a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday; the audio had been manipulated to give the false impression that she was mentally impaired. The Washington Post reported Thursday that copies of the video had been spreading on social media, including placement on Facebook’s conservative Politics WatchDog page, where it racked up 2.5 million views.
As it turns out, even in its supposed efforts to eradicate fake news, Facebook isn’t willing to remove false content from its site.
Here’s the company’s policy on the issue: “We want to help people stay informed without stifling productive public discourse. There is also a fine line between false news and satire or opinion. For these reasons, we don’t remove false news from Facebook but instead, significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in the News Feed.”
In other words, Facebook is happy to continue to provide its podium and microphone to false and misleading posts. But if someone complains, the company may turn down the volume.
That’s outrageous. Pelosi haters may think it’s funny to make her speech seem slurred and subtly suggest that her age (at 79, she’s seven years older than President Trump) is getting the better of her. But it’s easy to imagine the same stunt being pulled on Trump, who is far less articulate than Pelosi to start with — or on any other important figure in a public debate.
Facebook may be particularly reluctant to be seen as censoring the video in light of the heaping helping of denunciations from Trump and others on the right about giant tech companies’ alleged anti-conservative bias. Trump sounded that note again Friday morning on Twitter, tweeting to his 60.5 million followers with no apparent irony about the “very popular Conservative Voices” that Twitter has silenced.
But the stakes here are enormous. House Democrats are fighting battles these days with Trump and congressional Republicans on multiple fronts, both in terms of legislation and oversight, and Pelosi is the Democrats’ most visible leader. More to the point, she’s actually a leader, unlike the Democratic freshmen who’ve gotten so much attention in the media. By making her a target, Trump’s supporters are trying to discredit House Democrats generally, in the same way that they’ve tried for years to turn her into a hyperliberal caricature in the hope of electing more congressional Republicans.
(Given that Pelosi is widely seen as the most powerful brake on the House Democrats’ zeal to impeach Trump, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Trump supporters to undermine her publicly. Unless, of course, they think it would help Trump’s reelection chances if he were impeached. Hmm.)
Anyway, Facebook can’t continue to pretend that its only responsibility is not to promote fake news. Whether it likes it or not, it has to remove demonstrably false content from its platform. Whether it’s bogus videos of elected officials or fake cancer cures, the effect on the body politic is the same.
Jon Healey is the deputy editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times, where a version of this piece first appeared.