On September 24, Facebook announced that it will continue to exempt ads and content from politicians from fact-checking, even if they violate the site’s hate speech rules or other policies, as such content is “newsworthy”. This reiteration of Facebook’s existing policy came from Nick Clegg, its head of global affairs and communications, as he delivered a speech in Washington, D.C. on the steps Facebook is taking to safeguard the 2020 US election.

What this means: Organic content and ads from politicians are not sent to Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners for review.

Why are politicians exempted from Facebook’s third-party fact-checking programme? Because Facebook believes it is not the company’s job to “referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny”.

What about shared content? Clegg said that when a politician shares previously debunked content, the platform will “demote that content, display related information from fact-checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements”.

Is this a new rule? Clegg wrote that this policy has been in effect for over a year now. As per Facebook’s fact-checking content eligibility guidelines, content that is from a website or a page whose primary purpose is to “express the opinion or agenda of apolitical figure” is rated “Not Eligible” by the third-party fact-checker. Note that the content is still sent for review and “newsworthy Facebook posts” are eligible for fact-checking.

What is the newsworthiness exemption? Since 2016, Facebook has allowed items that people find “newsworthy” on its platform, even if they violate Facebook’s standards. Speech from politicians will now be treated as newsworthy content which “should, as a general rule, be seen and heard”.

Factors that will determine newsworthiness: Main criterion will be the trade-off between public interest value of the speech and risk of harm. This will be determined by these factos:

  • Country-specific circumstances (Is it election time? Is the country at war?)
  • Nature of speech (Does it relate to governance and politics?)
  • Political structure of the country (Is there free press in the country?)

Is this exemption applicable to ads as well? No. Ads must still adhere to Facebook’s Community Standards and advertising policies.

Does any other platform have such an exemption? In June 2019, Twitter announced a similar policy through which it assessed “public interest”. The platform thus allows tweets from verified accounts of elected and nominated government officials and candidates with more than 100,000 followers to remain on the site, even if such tweets would otherwise violate Twitter’s rules. However, such tweets would be marked with a notice stating so.

Courtesy: Twitter

MediaNama’s take: Adjudication of content by social media platforms has remained a fraught debate for the last few years, but the spread of misinformation by elected government representatives and political candidates has exacerbated problems of disinformation campaigns. In such a scenario, to exempt organic content from politicians from fact-checking is an attempt to mitigate any responsibility and accountability on Facebook’s part. The company could have gone the Twitter way and fact-checked politician’s content, and given it a suitable label beyond “Not Eligible” so that users would at least know what is fact and what is not.