Politicians are exempt from fact-checking on social media platforms with providers abdicating responsibility for policing inaccuracies in a era when the election cycles and political life are blighted by ‘Fake News’.
Of course ‘Fake News’ typically means that a story has appeared somewhere that doesn’t fit with a particular politician’s agenda and there’s a fine line between fact-checking and altering the facts to bend to demands from seats of power.
Recent statements from some of the leading social platform providers however have set alarm bells ringing - and rightly so. All the main companies have come under fire for purported political bias, from advocates of the left and the right. US President Donald Trump has been particularly vociferous on this subject, so much so that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg even felt compelled to drop by the Oval Office for a telling-off by POTUS.
But it’s the same story around the globe. In the UK, with an increasingly febrile and borderline hysterical atmosphere triggered by Brexit, one of the BBC’s leading political editors recently found herself under fire from left and right - with different points of view - over tweets following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s meeting with a angry parent on a hospital photo opp. And she’s not even a politician…
Twitter itself has made some token effort around content from political figures, announcing back in June that it will place any such material that violates company policy behind a screen that has to be clicked through before the content can be read. In other words, offensive or inaccurate information will be left online and if you, dear reader, choose to look at it, on your own head be it.
Still, it’s some kind of action at (the very) least. Over at Facebook, they’re wiping their hands of any responsibility. Apologist-in-Chief Nick Clegg - aka Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications - told the Atlantic Festival gathering last week that the firm doesn’t fact-check posts by politicians and allows content to remain on the platform even if it breaks the rules that apply to everyone else.
This is penitent Facebook, remember, the social platform that’s been on a global mea culpa mission for the past year, the one that’s vowed to clean up its act and dedicate time and money to ensuring that it’s not used as an enabler for political and electoral chicanery.
But according to Clegg:
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. This means that we will not send organic content or ads from politicians to our third-party fact-checking partners for review.
Er, come again?
It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak…We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.
Clegg himself is of course a former politician. As leader of the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, he propped up a minority Conservative government under David Cameron’s premiership, scoring the role of Deputy Prime Minister in the process. Formerly a ferocious critic of Facebook, he underwent a Pauline conversion when a job offer from Zuckerberg turned up after he’d lost his role in government.
So he’s got form - and is keen to play that up as a strength:
I was an elected politician for many years. I’ve had both words and objects thrown at me, I’ve been on the receiving end of all manner of accusations and insults. It’s not new that politicians say nasty things about each other – that wasn’t invented by Facebook. What is new is that now they can reach people with far greater speed and at a far greater scale.
Yup - and it’s not guns that kill people; it’s people that kill people , yada yada yada
Facebook wants it both ways. Clegg argues that it’s vital that it is not seen as a “political participant”, but as “champions of free speech”. But it will be responsible, he insists, although it’s a ying/yang set of claims:
On the one hand:
Censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are about.
On the other hand:
We draw the line at any speech which can lead to real-world violence and harm.
Clegg does at least acknowledge that Facebook’s stance is problematic:
I know some people will say we should go further. That we are wrong to allow politicians to use our platform to say nasty things or make false claims. But imagine the reverse. However, when a politician shares previously debunked content including links, videos and photos, we plan to demote that content, display related information from fact-checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements,' he said.
Good news for dictators
But Facebook’s not the only culprit. At the same Washington conference., YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced a similar policy - content that violates “community guidelines” can stay online if it’s been created/posted by political figures. Her justification begins with a ridiculous assertion:
Politicians are of course are democratically elected, at least in most countries, and it's important for that content to be seen.
That’s got to be one of the most blatant examples of a Silicon Valley myopic worldview in a long time, but for totalitarian regimes everywhere, it’s a bit of good news. She went on:
When you have a political officer that is making information that is really important for the constituents to see, for other global leaders to see, that is content that we would that we would leave up because we think it’s important for other people to see.
And she passed the responsibility buck to other media when she said:
Even if we were to take it down, it would be covered by all the news stories and the news is always going to provide that information and they're going to provide it with context. So even if we take something down, a lot of what's controversial, it’s often covered by the press, but then it has the context around it, of like, this is why we left it up, this is what we think about this event that happened with a politician.
Somewhere in Wojcicki’s word salad I think is an attempt to argue that because stuff gets reposted and reused online on other platforms, what’s the point of YouTube going to any effort to keep its own hands clean? By that argument, what’s the point in any attempt at holding politicians to account?
Social media’s influence in modern politics is undeniable. Today there are still questions around the role of social in the last US Presidential election, while a daily stream of assertions emerges from the Oval Office on a daily basis on Twitter. Social media platforms have undoubtedly contributed to the current flammable nature of UK politics, a vehicle for misinformation and unsubstantiated claims and ‘facts’ from vested interests of all forms.
It’s a difficult balance to strike, but abdicating responsibility isn’t an acceptable response. Facebook has spent a lot of time over the years protesting that it shouldn’t be treated as a publisher and as such shouldn’t be held to account in the same way. This latest from Clegg is an extension of that specious mantra.
Of course politicians are always going to have their own world views and those are typically factually selective and expedient. For those in government, the glass will always be half full, for those in opposition, it’s half empty. But there are facts, undeniable facts, that need to be checked and validated.
If the default stance from Facebook and YouTube and their like is that politicians are always going to make things up so what’s the point of doing that, then the ‘Wild West’ of the Fake News internet is only going get wilder - at considerable detriment to all.