Whose role is it to stand up for fake news?
While Facebook considers refereeing political debates on its platform inappropriate, Twitter is doubling-down on its efforts to fact-check politicians’ posts.
According to Digital 2020: Global Digital Overview, active social media users have surpassed the 3.8 billion mark. It is estimated that these users spend 144 minutes or two hours and twenty-four minutes on social media daily. They are spending this time posting and sharing, but also getting bite-sized news stories from around the world. Reuters reported a recent Pew Research Center survey shows about two-thirds of American adults are getting “at least some of their news on social media.” Additionally, social media has outpaced print newspapers as a news source, making social media a critical battleground to shape the political discourse.
Social media provides a unique opportunity for politicians to amplify their messages directly to the masses. However, this also poses a challenge because news media, which often provides context and analysis, is completely bypassed. So, should social media platforms fact-check what politicians are saying or avoid treading into this territory?
Should Social Media Fact-Check Politicians’ Posts on their Platforms?
Social media platforms have a responsibility to fact-check political content posted by politicians.
Significance of Countering Misinformation
In the early days of the corona virus pandemic, Business Insider reported vandals setting at least 50 cellphone masts in the UK on fire, because of a conspiracy theory linking the corona virus with the new super-fast 5G mobile networks.
Twitter has since been busy putting fact-checking labels to thousands of tweets containing misleading content. The label appears beneath misleading tweets and reads: “Get the facts on COVID-19”. Upon clicking, you are directed to a Twitter-curated page titled “No, 5G isn’t causing corona virus” that lists credible news sources, fact-checking organizations, and official agencies debunking this conspiracy theory. Imagine, if such misinformation was left unchecked, how seriously it could undermine global efforts to fight this once-in-a-generation crisis.
Twitter’s policy of labeling, hiding, and even removing certain content altogether depending on its propensity for harm helps counter false narratives.
Then comes President Donald Trump, arguably Twitter’s most famous user with over 80 million followers. He has recently found himself in the middle of a Twitter storm by posting content flagged for glorifying violence, manipulated media, and potentially misleading.
Social media platforms have a responsibility to fact-check political content posted by politicians. Clicking Twitter’s label of “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” a page provides information about how the claim that mail-in-ballots lead to voter fraud is unsubstantiated, citing credible news sources and fact-checkers. Without this fact-checking, Twitter believes that such tweets could potentially confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process. Such flagging also helps provide context and more information about potentially misleading content.
It is also worth noting that Twitter has also taken action against other world leaders. They removed tweets by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro touting unproven cures for COVID-19.
Strengthening political discourse without taking sides
Fact-checking does not mean that social media companies are taking sides in the political debate. Curated pages that contain additional information from credible news sources and independent fact-checkers provides further context. Fact-checking happens across party lines and does not mean that a particular side is being scrutinized excessively.
The purpose of social media is to serve the public conversation. During election season, social media is responsible for protecting the integrity of these conversations from any interference or manipulation, thus strengthening the political discourse.
I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms, in general, should be arbiters of truthFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
It’s not the responsibility of social media platforms
Facebook does not believe that private companies have the right to moderate the world of political theater. Although their advertising policy on misinformation prohibits ads containing claims debunked by third-party-fact-checkers, politicians’ posts, including political ads, are exempt from this fact-checking program. In other words, they are allowing political ads, even if they contain misinformation.
It is worth noting that Facebook does have some lines that no one, including politicians, can cross. While giving an interview on CNBC, Zuckerberg said that no one is allowed to use Facebook to cause violence or harm themselves, or to post information that could lead to voter suppression.
The rationale behind not to referee political debate is framed around the argument of freedom of expression. To articulate how Facebook doesn’t want to become a political participant themselves, here is what Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook, had to say:
“To use tennis as an analogy, our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height. But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not us.
We have a responsibility to protect the platform from outside interference, and to make sure that when people pay us for political ads, we make it as transparent as possible. But it is not our role to intervene when politicians speak.”
People should decide for themselves
People need to know what their elected officials are saying. Political speech already gets a lot of scrutiny from news media on TV or news websites, which are the most popular platforms people turn to for news. If anyone wants additional context, they can always refer to these sources.
If what politicians are saying is censored on social media, this leaves people less informed and politicians less accountable for their words. Politicians should be allowed to say what they want on social media. Then people should be the judges, not social media companies.