Facebook grapples with challenge of conspiracy sites

The Hill illustration

Facebook is struggling with a difficult challenge — how to crack down on conspiracy theories and hoax sites on its platform.

On one side are groups that say the company should better police user content. They are pushing Facebook to take down videos and posts from organizations such as Alex Jones’s Infowars. That website has pushed hoaxes alleging the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was staged and that John Podesta, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, was a part of a child-sex ring.

But on the other side are Republican lawmakers and conservatives more focused on another issue: censorship of conservative content or viewpoints. They are skeptical of Facebook and fear that any changes could target content from right-leaning outlets.

{mosads}That’s put Facebook in a difficult spot. 

The competing demands will be in the spotlight on Tuesday when a top executive testifies before the House Judiciary Committee. Facebook will send its global policy director, Monika Bickert, to testify alongside YouTube public policy director Juniper Downs and Twitter senior policy strategist Nick Pickles.

The hearing is focused on alleged bias against conservative content on social media. But that spotlight on alleged bias, many say, is making Facebook and others reluctant to take action against sites peddling hoax stories.

“I think that what’s happening is that this is the tech companies overcompensating … to demonstrate that they are not biased,” a Republican strategist, who asked to speak anonymously, told The Hill.

Facebook’s own policy is that it will not take down content simply because it is false.

“I guess just for being false that doesn’t violate the community standards,” Facebook News Feed chief John Hegeman explained at a briefing with reporters in New York City on Friday.

A CNN reporter, Oliver Darcy, questioned the company’s position on Twitter on Friday.

“If FB is devoted to fighting false news, how does Infowars have an account on your site?” he tweeted.

Facebook cited free speech and the difficulty in knowing when content crosses a line.

“We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis — but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech,” the company responded.

Alex Jones also jumped in to defend Facebook.

“CNN & BuzzFeed are pissed off at Facebook because Facebook announced that it supports free speech,” he tweeted. “Let that sink in.”

Facebook says it is taking other steps to make false stories less visible on the platform by demoting them in their News Feed algorithms.

Katherine Haenschen, a professor at Virginia Tech who focuses on digital media, says the company’s stance is confusing and contradictory.

“Facebook has all of these rules about who can and cannot advertise on the platform. If you’re selling oregano capsules claiming they’ll cure cancer, they can be taken down,” she said. “What’s interesting is that they’ve refused the same standard to information that they apply to everything else.”

The challenge of dealing with false stories is nothing new, and some critics say Facebook took too long to begin addressing the problem.

They note that Facebook has helped Infowars and Gateway Pundit, two outlets that have promoted hoaxes, become bigger brands and reach a much wider audience. They point to Facebook’s use of brand “pages” that help outlets consolidate and share content.

Haenschen said Facebook should have acted sooner to target promoters of conspiracy theories.

“If Facebook addressed Infowars back when it was just the paper thing I could pick up in Austin at my mechanic, the audience was smaller — that wouldn’t have resulted in a huge outcry,” said Haenschen.

“Now that everything has gotten so contentious anything now would play into the [narrative of] victimization of conservatives in tech,” she continued.

The Republican strategist who spoke to The Hill said Facebook is in a tough bind.

“They are going so far to accommodate conservatives they’re overshooting by protecting outlets conservatives wouldn’t even defend,” the strategist added.

The new controversy comes as Facebook is struggling to find goodwill in Washington. The company has been battered by a slew of controversies, including its handling of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Conservatives are now eager to ensure the company and others in the tech world don’t discriminate against right-leaning views, which they see as a serious concern.

“There are algorithmic biases against conservatives that I think are a real issue that is worth addressing,” said Tim Miller, a GOP operative and Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign communications director.

Infowars has few supporters, but one problem for Facebook is where to draw the line.

Gateway Pundit is a conservative site that has promoted stories accusing an innocent person of being the Las Vegas shooter and conspiracy theories about a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

But at a hearing in April, some Republican lawmakers questioned if the website was being unfairly targeted by bias.

Facebook has been working to repair trust after the spate of recent controversies, including with television ads apologizing for its missteps and vowing to do better.

Now the company is finding itself under scrutiny again from all sides.

“The only fake thing that Facebook will let you sell on their platform is fake information,” said Haenschen.

Tags Conspiracy theories Facebook Hillary Clinton Social media

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