Despite rising criticism over Facebook's inaction over recent comments from US President Donald Trump, despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently stating that he believes the company's policy direction is well thought out and on the right track. In light of the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests, and internal unrest over its approach, Zuckerberg has today announced that Facebook will review its policies as part of a broader effort to improve, and address concerns around racial inequality.
In a long post on his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg shared a memo, which he'd initially posted to Facebook employees, which outlines his thoughts on the evolving situation, and the criticism of Facebook specifically:
And while Zuckerberg does concede that Facebook needs to address concerns, he remains steadfast in his belief that its policies are largely correct:
"I believe our platforms can play a positive role in helping to heal the divisions in our society, and I'm committed to making sure our work pulls in this direction. [...] And while we will continue to stand for giving everyone a voice and erring on the side of free expression in these difficult decisions -- even when it's speech we strongly and viscerally disagree with -- I'm committed to making sure we also fight for voter engagement and racial justice too."
The main concerns relate to these two posts from President Trump, which he also posted to his Twitter profile:
Twitter has taken action on both, which prompted Trump to call for an investigation into the laws which allow social platforms to interfere with his messaging. Facebook, thus far, has not taken action on either.
But Zuckerberg says that it may change its approach in future:
"Based on feedback from employees, civil rights experts and subject matter experts internally, we're exploring the [three areas] - ideas related to specific policies, ideas related to decision-making, and proactive initiatives to advance racial justice and voter engagement."
On the offending posts specifically, Zuckerberg says that Facebook will:
- Review its policies around discussion and threats of state use of force. Zuckerberg says that there are two specific situations under this policy which will be reviewed - instances of excessive use of police or state force, and how the rules are applied when a country has ongoing civil unrest or violent conflicts. "We already have precedents for imposing greater restrictions during emergencies and when countries are in ongoing states of conflict, so there may be additional policies or integrity measures to consider around discussion or threats of state use of force when a country is in this state".
- Review its policies around voter suppression to ensure that it's taking into account "the realities of voting in the midst of a pandemic". Zuckerberg notes that there's likely to be increased fear and confusion around going to the polls this November due to COVID-19, and some will likely try to capitalize on this. "For example, as politicians debate what the vote-by-mail policies should be in different states, what should be the line between a legitimate debate about the voting policies and attempts to confuse or suppress individuals about how, when or where to vote?"
- Review potential options for handling violating and/or partially-violating content, "aside from the binary leave-it-up or take-it-down decisions". This could, eventually, see Facebook take a similar approach to Twitter, in adding warnings to such posts, while still leaving them active - though Zuckerberg does warn that there are flaws with this approach, as he recently noted in relation to Twitter. "Our current policy is that if content is actually inciting violence, then the right mitigation is to take that content down - not let people continue seeing it behind a flag. There is no exception to this policy for politicians or newsworthiness. I think this policy is principled and reasonable, but I also respect a lot of the people who think there may be better alternatives, so I want to make sure we hear all those ideas."
Zuckerberg doesn't commit to making any specific changes, and he does additionally note that:
"In general, I worry that this approach has a risk of leading us to editorialize on content we don't like even if it doesn't violate our policies, so I think we need to proceed very carefully."
In essence, Zuckerberg hasn't changed his personal view or approach on such, but the rising tide of opposition has prompted him to allow for more discussion. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri also noted that they will be reviewing these policies in his latest Q and A session on his Instagram Story.
In addition to these considerations, Zuckerberg also notes that Facebook is:
- Looking to provide more transparency in its decision-making processes
- Reviewing its internal structures to ensure the right people are part of any such decisions
- Starting a new workstream for building products to advance racial justice
- Building a 'voter hub', similar to its COVID-19 information center, designed to prompt more people to participate in elections
Overall, Zuckerberg is saying the right things, but given the company's unchanged position on political commentary thus far - despite rising opposition and criticism over the last six months in particular - we'll have to wait and see whether Facebook actually implements any updates in its approach as a result.
It's also worth noting that Media Matters for America is reportedly considering a new campaign to advise advertisers against spending on Facebook ads in light of the company's inaction. That's not to say that this is a motivator behind Zuckerberg's announcement, but it may add more context as to what's influencing Facebook's thinking, with the backlash still ongoing, and still, potentially, set to cause more consequential impacts.
And above all this, there is, of course, also a valid query as to whether Facebook should make any change either way. Whether you agree with the company's approach or not, Facebook has raised valid considerations, it has thought through its policies and decided on the line that it's chosen to take. Maybe, Facebook will simply provide more transparency into its thinking - which would be a positive outcome in itself, as it may help people better contextualize why Zuck and Co. have opted to take action or not.
This is a complex, but critical area, and given the recent White House Executive Order for an investigation into the laws that protect social platforms from liability, you can expect the debate to continue for some months yet.