Facebook defends decision to keep up Pelosi video

Aaron Schwartz

A Facebook representative on Tuesday defended the company’s decision to not take down a video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that was meant to make her appear drunk, saying flagging the video and not removing it promoted user choice.

Neil Potts, Facebook’s public policy manager, said taking that approach allows people to understand what the video is and why it has been flagged.

{mosads}“It is our policy to inform people when we have information that might be false on the platform so they can make their own decisions about that content,” Potts said during a meeting of the international grand committee on big data, privacy and democracy in Ottawa, Canada.

The grand committee includes politicians from a dozen countries who meet with representatives of Facebook and other tech companies to discuss how to protect privacy and prevent abuse on social media.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are grappling with how to handle fake and manipulated videos after the Pelosi video racked up millions of views and raised the debate in the United States. Experts are warning that manipulated videos will be a new frontier for social media companies and people running for office in 2020.

The remarks from Potts underline Facebook’s view that the videos ultimately come down to a form of free expression, and that those seeing the videos on social media simply need to be told of their full context.

The Pelosi video was slowed down to make the Speaker appear to be slurring her words.

While it did not take down the video, Facebook said it had been flagged by company fact-checkers as false, and that as a result Facebook was “heavily reducing its distribution in news feed and showing additional context from this fact-checker,” such as related articles.

But in Ottawa and Washington, some said that was not enough.

Damian Collins, a conservative in the United Kingdom’s Parliament and a member of the grand committee, said the Facebook decision on the Pelosi video set a “dangerous precedent.”

“Do you not see that what Facebook is doing is giving a green light to anyone in the world that wants to make a distorted or fake film about a senior politician, or maybe in the future use deepfake technology to do it, and know that whatever happens, Facebook won’t review the film,” he said, grilling Potts.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill that Congress needs to “put guardrails in place” to make sure users can maintain confidence in what they see on social media platforms.

“It has been clear for some time that large platforms do not have clear policies or procedures in place to address viral misinformation like this – now imagine what’s going to happen as more sophisticated tools and techniques for doctoring videos become widely available,” Warner said in a statement.

Warner said viral misinformation is being pushed with simple techniques today, but that new technologies will make matters worse.

“Going forward, we need to put guardrails in place to help avoid a major crisis of confidence. This includes targeting major issues around transparency, privacy, and accountability on social media platforms,” Warner said.

Republicans have accused Facebook and other social media companies of discriminating against conservative content, and Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.), the ranking GOP lawmaker on the House Homeland Security Committee, warned taking down videos could infringe on free speech.

“While social media companies certainly play a role here, any congressional action must respect the First Amendment,” Rogers told The Hill on Tuesday.

Democrats, however, are warning that Facebook and other companies have an added responsibility to take dramatic steps to police content after the 2016 election.

Russian-backed groups in that cycle sent out numerous fake messages on Facebook, including invitations to phony events. The effort was aimed at stoking divisions in the country, and at interfering with the presidential election.

“Doctored videos like this are not only vile, partisan trash, they are a sad omen of what is to come in the 2020 election season,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. “It is also time for social media companies to act responsibly after they were caught flat footed in 2016. They are on notice.”

Outside experts said Facebook is caught in a difficult spot given the partisan fighting surrounding the Pelosi video.

Simply taking down videos could be a violation of free speech, said Alan McQuinn, a senior policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

“I see the Facebook response as the correct one in the circumstances, in the case that they followed the procedure they set out,” McQuinn said. “They weren’t the sole arbiters of this truth, they went to third party fact-checkers,” adding that “they had to balance free speech.”

Emma Llansó, the director of free expression at the Center for Democracy and Technology, also believes that Facebook “made the right call” in leaving up the video due to the need to stick to previously established policies. She emphasized that should Facebook change its policies, or Congress decide to try to regulate this type of content on social media, these efforts could likely end up impacting parody videos or other political comedy online.

“This is a good example of how hard it is to draw those lines,” Llansó said. “Figuring out how to draw the line between what is acceptable use of minor manipulation of media and what is unacceptable would be extremely hard to draw … it would absolutely capture other speech that has before that seemed unobjectionable.” 

Tags Bennie Thompson Facebook Mark Warner Mike Rogers Nancy Pelosi

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