After Facebook was implicated in the 2016 election wreckage, the company made strides to shore up the platform against future harms to our democracy. But now, Facebook is sabotaging its own efforts through a new policy: the explicit exemption of politicians’ speech from its community standards.
Since 2016, Facebook has maintained a “newsworthiness” exemption, meaning content that violates community standards — including hate speech and harassment — can still be posted when the public interest in viewing the content outweighs the risk of harm.
With its new policy, Facebook will automatically presume speech from politicians to be newsworthy. Simply put: While major news organizations are strengthening fact-checking and accountability, Facebook is saying: If you are a politician who wishes to peddle in lies, distortion and not-so-subtle racial appeals, welcome to our platform. We will not fact-check. You are automatically newsworthy. You are automatically exempt from scrutiny.
This is extraordinarily reckless. In effect, Facebook is providing politicians free rein to spread misinformation and racially divisive content with no accountability.
As a former deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, I understand and support the importance of protecting freedom of expression, regardless of who the speaker is. Yet, a complete exemption for politicians—unless you can meet the high hurdle of showing their speech will incite violence—is simply not a reasonable approach. Free expression is a core principle of our democracy. But so are fair elections.
Just this week, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed that Russia used Facebook and other platforms to inflame racial tensions ahead of the 2016 election and to target black voters with disinformation, using fake accounts to discourage people from voting. Some politicians — candidates and elected officials —fed into these divisive narratives and amplified racial appeals for electoral gain. One would think that for the next U.S. presidential election, Facebook would take every precaution to prevent a repeat performance.
It’s true that the 2016 election fallout forced Facebook to acknowledge civil and human rights violations on the platform. The company has since engaged with my organization, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and other civil rights groups to address the social network’s vulnerabilities, particularly concerns about voter suppression and 2020 census participation.
Under the supervision of COO Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook began conducting a civil rights audit in the spring of 2018 to ensure that the platform was not used to drive bigotry and stoke racial or religious resentment and violence. Sandberg has since won praise for her willingness to take key steps in the right direction.
But in a blow to the civil rights community’s already thread-bare trust in Facebook, the company announced the exemption for politicians’ speech late last month, on the eve of an unprecedented gathering of civil rights advocates and Facebook leaders in Atlanta that was organized by the advocacy group Color of Change. My colleagues and I arrived prepared to discuss solutions—not to fight new and flagrantly harmful policies. As I said at the closing of the conference, we had traveled to Atlanta with confidence and left disturbed that the Facebook exemption would unravel our progress.
This all raises the question: How can Facebook commit to preserving the integrity of our democracy while exempting politicians who deliberately violate the company’s community standards?
It seems Facebook does not want to be an arbiter of political speech. As Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, recently said in explaining the policy, “We don’t believe … that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”
But no one who cherishes democratic values can simply hide behind the view that elected leaders should freely use a communications platform to divide and deceive voters. Through this policy, Facebook made an intentional decision to permit authoritarian politicians to use the world’s largest megaphone to broadcast racial appeals. Let us not forget how autocrats throughout history have relied on unregulated media to rise to power.
To the degree that Facebook made this decision as a response to accusations of anti-conservative bias, that only promotes a dangerous false equivalence: The idea that preventing the weaponization of racism for political gain is a conservative versus liberal issue. It is not. It is about the basic values of our nation.
What’s more, allowing politicians to fuel racial tensions undermines our elections, and chills civic participation. Racism is shape-shifting and highly adaptable. It often permeates the public dialogue through coded language and dog whistles. As a leading technology company, Facebook must acknowledge this and embrace policies that define voter and census suppression as broadly as possible. Such an oversight proves the company’s willful ignorance of racism and voter suppression in America today.
How might racism implicitly show up on Facebook today?
Imagine the mayor of a large city claiming that police officers should be stationed at polling places in certain neighborhoods to protect against voter fraud. Or, imagine politicians coordinating messages, stating that if you fill out the census form, your information will be shared with law enforcement and you could face deportation. The new exemption would allow this content—even though it is meant to fearmonger and dissuade communities of color and immigrants from participating in our democracy.
Elected officials have historically been responsible for perpetuating discrimination and erecting barriers to voter participation. By protecting the agents of voter suppression, Facebook is signaling that it would rather coddle the powerful and privileged—even when they pursue anti-democratic goals—at the expense of the people.
Facebook can fix this crisis by closing this exemption now. If Facebook is truly committed to building community and combating voter and census suppression, it must require politicians to abide by the same community standards as everyone else. Anything less will swallow the efforts the platform has already made and profoundly subvert our democracy — again.
Vanita Gupta is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She is former head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.