Future Tense

Facebook Just Made Taking Down a Trump Post Inevitable

Facebook logo and a Facebook thumbs-up.
Facebook is no longer giving politicians free rein. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

A showdown between Facebook and President Donald Trump looks like it just became inevitable. On Friday, the social network announced a number of new content moderation policies that chip away at the company’s long-standing practice of giving politicians free rein to post, or advertise, virtually anything they want. The platform is taking a broader approach to the types of hateful speech that it prohibits in ads and will be banning misinformation related to voting, even if such content comes from politicians. Facebook has also committed to labeling “problematic” content that it leaves up due to its newsworthiness exception for world leaders—in other words, it could do to the president’s missives what Twitter did a month ago. If that incident was any indication, he’ll be pissed.

Especially if Facebook goes as far as to take a Trump post down—which it suggested it could. “There is no newsworthiness exemption to content that incites violence or suppresses voting. Even if a politician or government official says it, if we determine that content may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote, we will take that content down,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post detailing the new policies. “Similarly, there are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies I’m announcing here today.” Zuckerberg also went over the changes in a livestream.

Why announce this now? According to Zuckerberg’s post—which does not mention a growing advertiser boycott—the platform is becoming more stringent when it comes to misinformation due to fears that false or misleading posts about COVID-19 will exacerbate voter suppression. Facebook has now pledged to remove misinformation about polling conditions in the 72 hours leading up to the 2020 election, threats of interference at poll places from vigilantes, and claims that ICE agents are checking voters’ immigration papers. The platform is also creating a Voting Information Center to share authoritative information about election procedures. Moderators will also take down content that portrays immigrants as inferior and deserving of contempt.

The policy changes also come on the heels of another decision by Facebook to more strictly moderate politicians’ posts. Last week, the platform deactivated an ad from the Trump campaign that included an upside-down red triangle, which Nazis once used as a symbol to mark political prisoners in concentration camps.

The company has generally faced pressure from its employees, activist groups, political campaigns, and rivals like Twitter to assume a more aggressive stance toward false and hateful political speech. But advertisers seem to have helped move the needle. On Monday, North Face and Patagonia announced that they were halting ads on Facebook in response to the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign, which called on companies to withhold spending to push the platform to implement higher content standards. Ben & Jerry’s made the same decision a day later, as did Goodby Silverstein, a major ad agency representing brands like Pepsi and Paypal, on Thursday. Verizon and Unilever joined in shortly afterward.

On Friday, activists groups were nevertheless critical of the policy changes. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, tweeted, “Zuckerberg’s new changes don’t go nearly far enough. Labeling ‘newsworthy’ content so the public can judge for themselves is not a new policy. It’s more of the same, and it won’t cut it.” Freedom From Facebook released a statement reading, in part, “Until policymakers and enforcers break [Facebook] up and prohibit them from making money from targeted advertising, we will be subject to an endless cycle of largely cosmetic changes, followed by new scandals and abuse.”

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Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.