Facebook, Politicians, and Misinformation

A Facebook app on a cellphone

News analysis by Parsha Zaman and Niamh Mcauliffe

Facebook’s refusal to censor political speech or false ads from politicians has given rise to a basic question: Who is considered a politician? That definition is important because a team of independent fact checkers will monitor and take down false political posts on Facebook as long as they are not from “politicians.”  

Poynter’s article, “Facebook’s politician exemption is likely to face more tests,” by Cristina Tardàguila, Daniel Funke, and Susan Benkelman, looks at Facebook’s definition and whether it provides enough clarity. According to Facebook, politicians are “candidates running for office, current office holders – and, by extension, many of their cabinet appointees – along with political parties and their leaders.”

This language could lead to some curious inconsistencies. For example, Hillary Clinton is considered a politician, but her statements would be fact-checked on Facebook because she is not running for office. But if the president said something demonstrably false about her, it would not be fact-checked because he is a candidate in the 2020 election.

 While ads from political parties will be exempt from fact-checking, ads from political action committees will be subject to the third party fact checking program.

The Takeaway: Given its 2.45 billion monthly active users, Facebook is an ideal platform for anyone who wants to spread misinformation. With the 2020 presidential election looming, voters need to exercise extreme skepticism when they come across political ads or posts on Facebook, and then interrogate and verify the information. They can do this by reading laterally and asking themselves who’s behind the information, what’s the evidence, and what do other sources say?