OAKLAND, California (AP) – President Donald Trump posted identical messages on Twitter and Facebook this week. But while the two social platforms have very similar policies regarding misinformation about voters and glorifying violence, they treated Trump’s messages very differently, proving that Silicon Valley is far from a united front when it comes to political decisions
Twitter posted a warning label to two Trump tweets that called mail-in ballots “fraudulent” and predicted problems with the November election. It downgraded and posted a stronger warning on a third tweet about protests in Minneapolis, which read in part that “when the looting begins, the shooting begins.”
Facebook left the messages alone.
“Facebook doesn’t want to alienate certain communities,” said Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the digital platforms and democracy project at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “It doesn’t want to tick off a whole bunch of people who really believe the President and appreciate his tweets.”
Twitter, on the other hand, has a history of stronger stances, he added, including a complete ban on political ads that the company announced last November.
That’s partly because Facebook, a much larger company with a wider audience, caught in the crosshairs of regulators because of its size and power, has more to lose. And partly because the CEOs of the companies are not always face to face with their role in society.
“Our position is that we should allow as much expression as possible, unless it carries an immediate risk of specific harm or perils described in clear policies,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, Friday in a post on his social network .
Referring to the President’s comments on the Minneapolis protests, Zuckerberg said he had “a visceral negative response to this kind of division and inflammatory rhetoric.” But Facebook, he said, decided to keep the president’s comments on the site because “we read” is a warning of state action and we think people should know if the government plans to use force. ”
More generally, Zuckerberg has often said that Facebook does not want to be “the arbiter of truth.”
Still, Facebook has long used fact checks on its site, run by third-party news organizations like The Associated Press, and is constantly using algorithms to decide what to show its 2.5 billion users. And it sets up a supervisory board to decide whether to remove controversial messages.
Meanwhile, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that Twitter “will continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections worldwide.” But he added, “This doesn’t make us an” arbitrator of the truth. “
It is not the first time that a social media company has clashed with the President. And with six months to go before the election, it won’t be the last.
“It appears that Facebook, under pressure to follow the White House preference policy, chose appeasement and Twitter for fighting,” said Daphne Keller, a fellow of the Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society. “Why the difference? … Maybe Facebook thinks it has more to lose by alienating Republicans.”
Trump and fellow conservatives have been arguing for years that Silicon Valley tech companies are biased against them. But there is no evidence for it – and while the executives and most employees of Twitter, Facebook and Google may be liberal, the companies have emphasized that they have no business interest in favoring the political party over the others.
The problem started in 2016, two years after Facebook launched a section called “ trending, ” which used human editors to put together popular news stories. Facebook was charged with prejudice against conservatives based on the words of an anonymous former contractor who said the company downplayed conservative issues in that position and promoted liberal goals.
Zuckerberg then met with prominent right-wing leaders in an attempted damage control. In 2018, it closed the ‘trending’ section, but by then the story of conservative prejudice had spread far and wide. Congressional hearings on conservative bias followed, with leaders of Google, Twitter, and Facebook defending their companies, explaining that it would not be in their best interest to alienate half of their US users.
While critics have accused both Zuckerberg and Dorsey of merging with one side of the political alley or the other, Zuckerberg seems more intent on staying in the mushy midst – even if that turns out to be increasingly difficult.
“Facebook doesn’t want to alienate anyone,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media. “Twitter seems to be more comfortable saying, ‘Look, as a private platform, we reserve the right to do what we want to do.’ … They are right. This is not a question of the first amendment involving government censorship .
Zuckerman said that technology companies’ approaches to dealing with misinformation and inciting violence must change. “Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey are of the generation of internet entrepreneurs with a very strong preference for freedom of speech … you should be able to say whatever you want and no shouldn’t block it,” said Zuckerman.
But that hands-off approach no longer seems sustainable.
Perhaps even more than Trump’s provocative tweets, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing technology companies to rethink what remains undisputed on their platforms. For example, Zuckerman noted that both Facebook and Google were vigilant about blocking the video from the conspiracy theory “ Plandemic, ” which makes false claims about COVID-19 and therefore poses a potential public health threat.
“It’s really a non-profit scenario for social media companies,” said Patrick Hedger, research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Conservatives will complain if they block or correct Trump statements. Liberals will cry if they don’t.
Hedger also noted that “the unmoderated world exists,” noting Gab.com, which has become a haven for extremist views. “The unmoderated internet is not a nice place,” he said.
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