Facebook on Tuesday made a surprising announcement in its war on misinformation: if a politician posts it, anything goes.
In a blog post following a speech at the Atlantic Festival, Facebook’s global policy head Nick Clegg wrote that the company would “treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard,” meaning that posts by political figures will not be subject to Facebook’s normal community standards, which set rules around things like hate speech and harassment.
In the post, the company also made it clear that it does not fact-check any original content in posts or ads created by politicians, a fact that caught some Facebook observers by surprise.
Facebook explained that it will still send content to third-party fact checking teams if a political figure shares “previously debunked content.” This kind of content would then be subject to algorithmic demotion, in the case of a post, or rejection in the case of an ad.
The roundabout announcement comes as the platform steels itself leading into what is expected to be the most contentious U.S. general election in modern history.
Facebook has made strides forward in patrolling viral disinformation that ran wild on its platform in 2016, but still clings to its role as a neutral onlooker and not as a referee.
The social media giant has kept a degree of subjective murkiness in its policy enforcement, adding that anything with “potential to incite violence and harm" would still be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. That clause gives Facebook broad leeway to make those determinations, which at times will still be a political calculation, much to the platform’s chagrin.
“I know some people will say we should go further,” Clegg, a former U.K. deputy prime minister, admitted as he asked for an audience at Washington, D.C., festival to “imagine the reverse.”
In the U.S. alone, the left and right couldn’t be further from a consensus on what kind of online content is harmful. Even among major tech platforms, Facebook goes to great lengths to avoid displays of political partisanship.
Facebook will also apply a higher standard when money is involved, meaning that political ads will be governed by its normal rules, not its stated exception for newsworthiness.
Under its current set of rules, Facebook would act to limit the spread of the viral video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi because the video isn’t political speech that originated with a politician protected by Facebook’s newsworthiness clause.
“At Facebook, our role is to make sure there is a level playing field, not to be a political participant ourselves,” Clegg said.
“To use tennis as an analogy, our job is to make sure the court is ready—the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height. But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not us.”
In Facebook’s metaphor, the ref is nowhere to be found.