Facebook Tries to Draw Line on Misinformation in Anti-Lockdown Posts
An attendee looks at a mobile phone while walking the demonstration room during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Facebook Tries to Draw Line on Misinformation in Anti-Lockdown Posts

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. said it would crack down on posts that encourage people to break rules about social distancing to protest government lockdowns, while allowing information about gatherings that stick to local government guidelines. 

If someone said social distancing is ineffective, said Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, “we do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that down. At the same time it’s important that people can debate policies, can basically give their opinions on different things, so there’s a line on this,” he said. “More than normal political discourse I think a lot of stuff that people are saying that is false around a health emergency like this can be classified as harmful misinformation that has a risk of leading to imminent danger, and we’ll take that content down.”

A few hours after Zuckerberg spoke, the company provided a statement that attempted to clarify its policy. “Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” a company spokesperson said. Facebook explained that as long as protestors didn't say they plan to defy government-ordered social distancing rules they could promote their protests on the social network.

The company is in a tough spot when it comes to fringe groups of lockdown protestors, which drew widespread media attention this weekend. On the one hand, it has said it would remove dangerous false information about the coronavirus. It takes down false posts that recommend bleach as a miracle cure, for instance. On the other hand, Facebook risks appearing to shut down conservative protests if it takes down posts promoting them. In the past Facebook has been reluctant to do anything that looks like it is stifling conservative speech, even when critics label it misinformation.

Facebook has struggled to handle difficult decisions about misinformation and political speech.  Zuckerberg has said in the past that policing health information is easier than political posts, for example, because there is often a clear answer about what is true. The controversy over the anti-lockdown protests shows how the coronavirus pandemic is raising both political and medical questions. 

As the lockdowns drag on, protests could continue to cause uncomfortable situations for social media companies, especially if they gain broader political support.  U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday posted a series of messages on Twitter Inc. exhorting people to “liberate” several states that are under lockdown orders, in a clear reference to the protests. Twitter said the messages didn’t violate its content policies. 

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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