A 2024 reminder: Facebook isn’t fact-checking Trump or any other politician
Now that Donald Trump has made his reelection campaign official, Meta has decided to stop fact-checking his often-fact-challenged statements.
You read that correctly. On Tuesday, CNN reported on a leaked internal Meta memo explaining that as a candidate for president in the 2024 election, Trump now qualifies for a fact-checking exemption that the company grants all politicians on its Facebook and Instagram platforms.
The decision, which a Meta spokesman confirmed to CNN, illuminates the perpetuation of a policy that’s exactly backward. Meta maintains the social media industry’s largest network of paid outside fact-checkers — more than 80 organizations in all, ranging from the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact in St. Petersburg, Fla., to Rappler, a plucky news outlet in Manila headed by Maria Ressa, co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
But Meta exempts from its fact-checking system the most influential people in any political campaign: the candidates themselves.
The move to immunize Trump requires some unpacking, if for no other reason than the 45th president has been suspended altogether from Facebook since immediately after the Jan. 6th, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, which he helped foment via posts on Facebook and other platforms. But before getting into the nuances, it’s safe to say broadly that the Meta memo reveals an alarming lack of rigorous thinking about how social media companies exacerbate the spread of false and hateful content related to elections.
A manager with Meta’s “news integrity partnership” emailed the Trump memo to fact-checkers on Tuesday, ahead of Trump’s announcement that evening that he would run again in 2024. The memo reminded recipients that “political speech is ineligible for fact-checking. This includes the words a politician says as well as photo, video or other content that is clearly labeled as created by the politician or their campaign.” Andy Stone, a Meta spokesman, told CNN that the memo was “a reiteration of our long-standing policy [and] should not be news to anyone.”
But Stone’s news judgment leaves something to be desired. I would guess that most people don’t understand Meta’s policy, and even if they do, are baffled by it.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs and himself a former British deputy prime minister, announced the exemption in 2019, saying, “It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak.” This declaration reflected a broader notion then favored by Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow social media moguls — that platforms “should not be arbiters of the truth.”
But Facebook had begun fact-checking — i.e evaluating truth versus falsity — in the wake of the 2016 scandal involving Russian operatives exploiting the platform (along with Instagram, Twitter and Alphabet’s YouTube) to inflame the U.S. electorate and try to help get Trump elected the first time. When fact-checkers determine that content is demonstrably false, Facebook labels it as such, links the post to the fact-check findings, and down-ranks the content so fewer people will see it.
In response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Facebook and other major platforms went further and removed altogether misinformation about vaccination, masking and phony cures. When, during the same year, Trump used Facebook and Twitter to try to undermine voter trust in mail-in ballots, the platforms again took action, not always swiftly or emphatically enough, but they made factual judgments about when the former president lied to undermine democracy.
So, by 2020, the we’re-not-arbiters-of-the-truth line was in tatters, and the idea of exempting politicians made no sense. Of course, platforms shouldn’t try to referee every thrust-and-parry of the thousands of political races each election year. That’s just not feasible, and generally, voters should get to hear what politicians have to say on social media. But in major contests, it’s feasible for the platforms to employ automated systems overseen by human reviewers to identify the biggest lies — such as Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him — and at least signal to users and the public at large that there’s a difference between that kind of baloney and the truth.
Which brings us back to Meta giving Trump a pass on fact-checking. Since he’s suspended from the platform, why does the exemption matter? Two reasons. First, Meta’s Clegg said in September that the company may allow Trump to be reinstated as soon as January. Second, Trump has been communicating on Facebook all along by means of proxies like Team Trump, a page run by the Trump-affiliated political group Save America Joint Fundraising Committee, with a not-too-shabby 2.3 million followers.
Before the exemption memo, Meta’s fact-checkers at least occasionally had been keeping an eye on Team Trump. When, on Nov. 1, seven days before the midterms, the page posted content about supposed large-scale ballot fraud in Pennsylvania, Facebook appended a fact-check label linking to a PolitiFact article concluding that “Trump falsely said Democrats are playing ‘games’ with ‘unverified’ ballots in Pennsylvania.” Now, Team Trump can spew its misinformation on Meta platforms with no fear of having its content labeled or demoted.
Fact-checking lies is no panacea. It won’t stop Trump and his allies from promoting conspiracy theories or millions of MAGA enthusiasts from believing them. But it reminds anyone with an open mind that there’s a difference between truth and falsehood. Without that distinction, democracy crumbles.
Paul M. Barrett is the senior research scholar and deputy director at the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he writes about social media’s effects on democracy.