from the don't-be-ridiculous dept
I know that it’s fun and easy to attack Facebook these days — and the company certainly deserves all sorts of criticism. But the criticism should be within the realm of reality. And the latest, from Nancy Pelosi, is not that. As you may have heard, there’s all sorts of controversy over the past week or so concerning Facebook’s decisions on how to moderate purposefully doctored videos of Pelosi, that are either edited or just slowed down to make it appear (falsely) that she is stumbling over words or slurring them. As we pointed out, there are good arguments from a variety of different perspectives on how Facebook should handle this. Currently, it is limiting the ability for the video to spread algorithmically, and when people try to share it manually, it pops up a warning about how the video has issues and you might want to think twice about sharing it.
That said, it wasn’t even the video that was making the rounds on Facebook that got all the attention. Instead, Fox News ran a similar video, and that’s the one that President Trump himself tweeted. And yet, oddly, everyone seems to be rushing to blame Facebook. The latest to step up to the plate is Nancy Pelosi herself, who is now saying that Facebook choosing not to pull down the video means the company is a “willing enabler” of Russian election interference:
“We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians. I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false. I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I can take it. … But [Facebook is] lying to the public.”
She added: “I think they have proven ? by not taking down something they know is false ? that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”
This is such nonsense on so many levels. Of course, this is the same Nancy Pelosi who recently attacked Section 230 of the CDA and misrepresented what it does, so perhaps she can team up with all the Republicans in Congress making similar attacks on CDA 230 and kill the internet.
It is totally reasonable to say that Facebook was incompetent in dealing with Russian interference on its platform (it appears it was). It’s totally reasonable to argue that Facebook drastically underestimated the ability of such interference, and neglected to be concerned about it for way too long. However, the company has made a lot of changes in the last couple years, and you’re simply not paying attention if you don’t think the company now cares quite a bit about the issue. But it’s still going to face the same problem we’ve been discussing for years: content moderation at scale is impossible to do well, and some people are always going to disagree with certain decisions.
I completely understand the views of many that Facebook should have pulled down this video. But it is not an easy question and it is not one where the decision not to pull the video means that the company is “willingly enabling” propaganda (Russian or otherwise). As we pointed out just recently about this, how do you write rules that would make it obvious and clear for Facebook to remove a distorted video like that, that doesn’t also force it to remove satire, humor, political speech, etc. This was the point raised by the UN’s expert on free expression David Kaye:
homework assignment: draft the rule that prohibits doctored pelosi video but protects satire, political speech, dissent, humor etc. not so easy is it? https://t.co/zaA7kQf83i
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) May 25, 2019
And, even more to the point, how do you write a standard for Facebook to remove “false” information, “disinformation” or even “propaganda” that doesn’t also lead to the removal of religious texts and proselytizing.
For those of you who think disinformation should be censored, please tell me where you stand on organized religion because if any disinformation has demonstrably harmed millions, it's that.
— jillian (@jilliancyork) May 27, 2019
Point is: this is not easy. And many of these cases involve careful judgment calls where there is a tremendous gray area, rather than “black” and “white” decisions. It’s one thing to say that you disagree with Facebook’s decision, and argue for why you would have come down differently. There are ways to do that that would be compelling, certainly. But that’s not what Pelosi is doing,. Instead, she’s smearing all of Facebook in claiming that because it came down differently on this particular issue, that it means they’re in bed with Russian election meddling. That’s Louis Gohmert-level crazy.
Meanwhile, it really is amazing that nearly everyone is so focused on Facebook over this video when it was the Fox News version that the President retweeted. Yesterday, we highlighted how an opinion piece in the NY Times by Kara Swisher claimed that no network would air such a thing… ignoring that Fox News did exactly that. At least now, there’s another opinion piece in the NY Times by Farhad Manjoo pointing out how weird it is that everyone’s focused on Facebook instead of Fox:
In going after Facebook, many observers forgot about Rupert Murdoch?s empire, whose Fox Business spinoff aired a similarly misleading Pelosi hit job on ?Lou Dobbs Tonight.? This was upside down. While newfangled digital manipulations should raise some concern, they are still emerging, long-range threats, and social networks are at least experimenting with ways to mitigate their negative impact on society. But we don?t have much hope nor many good ideas for limiting the lies of old-media outlets like Fox News, which still commands the complete and slavish attention of tens of millions of Americans every night, polluting the public square with big and small lies that often ricochet across every platform, from cable to YouTube to Facebook to Google, drowning us all in a never-ending flood of fakery.
Indeed, what was remarkable about Fox?s Pelosi video was its very ordinariness. Instead of slowing down Pelosi?s speech, Fox Business misleadingly spliced together lots of small sections of a recent news conference to make it look as if Pelosi stammered worse than Porky Pig.
As Manjoo notes, it actually appears that Facebook’s response to the Pelosi video was perfectly reasonable:
But what the company did do ? label the clip as misinformation and limit its virality so that very few people got to see it ? struck me as a reasonable effort to quash the lie, especially since I worry about Facebook?s overreach. Demanding that Facebook remove posts that cross some hard-to-define line may end up dragooning lots of legitimate political speech into its memory hole. Such a policy would also enrich Mark Zuckerberg with the last thing we should want him to have: more power over what we read, watch, listen to and think about.
Fox News, on the other hand, wasn’t just a platform where any nut job troll could post a video. It’s a huge media outlet, watched by millions of devoted fans who take everything on it as gospel. And its employees were literally the ones who decided to post this video.
As we noted earlier this year, a recent book from Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, shows (with lots and lots and lots of data to back it up) that the real “propaganda” effect during and after the 2016 election was heavily driven by Fox News, and not by Facebook. For all the fretting about Facebook, it seems that those concerns are totally mistargeted.
And yet, of course, no one (least of all Pelosi) seems willing to attack Fox News, or to call it a “willing enabler” of Russian election interference. Indeed, doing so would lead to widespread attacks, and even (somewhat questionable) claims of 1st Amendment concerns of a politician meddling with the press. Yet few seem to blink an eye when she mistargets Facebook with the same criticism.
I’ll repeat it again: it is perfectly reasonable to dislike Facebook. To dislike it’s practices. To dislike it’s decision on the Pelosi video. But to conclude that this makes it a “willing enabler” of Russian election interference is disconnected from reality.