The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new set of challenges for Facebook's rules around political speech, and what it deems acceptable, or not, on its platform.
In many respects, the importance of accurate, timely, authoritative information has outweighed Facebook's usual reluctance to enforce strict rules around what can and cannot be posted, but it's also lead to some more delicate situations regarding potential censorship, and where Facebook will draw the line with respect to the discussions around the pandemic.
And now, Facebook is dealing with another key problem - with anti-lockdown protests ramping up in various areas of the US, Facebook is removing posts or events which promote defiance of government regulations around social distancing, while stopping short of halting the promotion of such events outright on its platform.
As Facebook told Bloomberg:
“Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.”
The ruling here highlights the fine line that Facebook is looking to tread - Facebook wants to encourage discussion and debate, but by facilitating the spread of such movements, it's also playing a key role in efforts that could negate government and health authority initiatives to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Facebook doesn't want to be accused of censorship, so it's allowing protest events to be organized on its platform, but it also doesn't want to be part of the problem, so it's also canceling them if they don't also promote safe social distancing. That technically means that I could organize a protest, so long as I note 'maintain social distancing' in the description, and I'd likely be fine.
As noted, this is the latest example of the fine line Facebook now walks between maintaining community safety and more overt censorship. Facebook's Community Guidelines have always specified that it will not allow criminal activity and potentially harmful movements to be coordinated on its platform, but at the same time, it wants to ensure that its users are free to engage in important political events, not only to maintain optimal engagement levels, but also to keep users from drifting off to other platforms with more lax rules around the same.
Facebook is the biggest social media platform in the world, but it's also acutely aware that it can lose its spot at the top of the heap if public sentiment shifts. If Facebook oversteps the mark, and moves into censorship, people will seek alternatives. That, in part, could be why Facebook has been so keen to push group participation of late - in private groups, people can discuss things out of the public eye, leaving them more free to raise whatever issues they like, without fear of offending others, and subsequently getting reported for such.
Basically, Facebook wants to maintain all possible avenues of discussion, but it also needs to factor in its responsibility. More people now get their news content from Facebook than they do the newspaper, and at 2.5 billion users, the platform's influence is huge. The content that's available on Facebook matters. It influences opinion, it shows people what's acceptable. It's a waterline of the base level of societal norms in many respects.
In allowing more extreme opinion and discussion to exist on its platform, Facebook is playing a part in supporting such, whether it wants to accept that responsibility or not.
That's why it's important that Facebook does take a stand on COVID-19 related misinformation, and potential unrest in response to government rulings on things like shutdowns and other mitigation measures. But given Facebook's increased action on this key issue, it does raise the question as to why Facebook won't do more to address other damaging movements, or why it's opted to take a hands-off approach to false claims in political ads.
It seems that Facebook does accept that it has a responsibility to act, but only when it suits them, on issues which it deems important enough.
That's a concerning development - if anything, COVID-19 has made Facebook's position on community care and censorship even more tenuous, which will no doubt lead to more debate and angst around its content rulings moving forward.