Facebook’s complicated position on conspiracy sites draws criticism

13 Jul 2018

Facebook website on laptop. Image: Tomislav Pinter/Shutterstock

Websites peddling misinformation have been the bane of the internet for some time now, but Facebook says removing them would violate its free speech policy.

So-called ‘fake news’ and conspiracy websites have become something of a permanent presence on a large majority of digital platforms, Facebook included. While the last few years have seen the social network aim to take responsibility for its role in the dissemination of information that may not always be truthful, a recent company event showed just how complex the problem is.

Facebook reps questioned

At the event held in Manhattan on Wednesday, 11 July, the company’s head of News Feed, John Hegeman, and Sara Su, a News Feed product specialist, fielded questions from a cadre of journalists.

CNN journalist Oliver Darcy asked the company reps how Facebook could claim to be taking the problem of misinformation seriously while allowing InfoWars to continue to maintain a page with close to a million followers on the platform.

Hegeman stated that Facebook does not “take down false news”. He added: “I guess, just for being false, that doesn’t violate the community standards.” Hegeman maintained that InfoWars had not violated any rules that would result in the page being pulled from the site.

InfoWars – a notorious platform

The News Feed chief went on to say that Facebook was created “to be a place where different people can have a voice”, citing the varying outlooks and points of view publishers may have.

While differing points of view is a valid argument in many cases, InfoWars is notorious for spreading entirely false information and fully fledged conspiracy theories on a variety of topics, from describing the Sandy Hook shooting as a hoax to aiding the spread of the ‘Pizzagate’ smear campaign stemming from leaked emails of former Hillary Clinton campaigner, John Podesta.

A form of expression

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “We allow people to post [inauthentic content] as a form of expression, but we’re not going to show it at the top of News Feed.”

They added: “That said: while sharing fake news doesn’t violate our Community Standards set of policies, we do have strategies in place to deal with actors who repeatedly share false news.

“If content from a Page or domain is repeatedly given a ‘false’ rating from our third-party fact-checkers … we remove their monetisation and advertising privileges to cut off financial incentives, and dramatically reduce the distribution of all of their Page-level or domain-level content on Facebook.”

Facebook tweeted: “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech.”

While Facebook appears to be happy to downrank sources such as InfoWars and its ilk in its News Feed algorithm, it seems it does not want to enforce an outright ban on such pages.

Social scientists granted data access

Meanwhile, an independent research commission dubbed Social Science One was also launched, which will give social scientists some access to previously private Facebook data.

Facebook will not have the power to approve or scrap research stemming from this data.

Facebook website on laptop. Image: Tomislav Pinter/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects