Social media companies are attempting to reassure the public that this time, in 2020, they will not allow themselves to be transformed into misinformation delivery systems. That is what Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, wanted to convey Tuesday at the Atlantic Festival.
Something Clegg said, however, caught the attention of many who are wary of Facebook's reassurances about preventing misinformation from going viral on its platform.
"It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak," he said. "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."
Facebook announced in December 2016 that it would use third-party fact-checkers to examine flagged content on the site, which would then be down-ranked in people's news feeds and sometimes appear with a debunking link. The program has faced some criticism for not being transparent enough with the fact-checking partners and for removing fact checks on controversial topics after political pressure.
This policy, which Facebook said has been in place for more than a year, will only display fact checks on previously debunked topics that are re-shared by politicians.
Facebook called the policy sparing politicians from fact checks part of its "newsworthiness exemption." Basically, if something on Facebook is newsworthy, or in the public interest, but violates its community standards, the website can keep the content up by citing the exemption. The newsworthiness exemption, introduced shortly before the 2016 elections, is a loophole in the company's moderation rules that was inspired by a very different kind of content: Facebook had caused a scandal by censoring a famous photograph of a girl fleeing a U.S. bomb strike during the Vietnam War because the girl was naked. At the time, Facebook's policy contained few details on how it would be enforced or precisely where it applies.
The "newsworthiness exemption" already seems to cover politicians - not least, President Trump. But Clegg's remarks on Tuesday were notable because they clarify the extent to which that policy applies to political figures.
"From now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard," Clegg said in a written statement accompanying his remarks. Facebook will be more strict, he added, when it comes to ads run by political campaigns.
"Newsworthiness" was, for years, central to Twitter's rationale for declining to act on some of Trump's tweets - including one saying that North Korea "won't be around much longer," which appeared to violate Twitter's policies against violent threats. (Twitter has, in other cases, disagreed that controversial tweets from Trump broke the rules, or cited an exemption for "military and government entities.")
Twitter tweaked its policy over the summer. Now, tweets from political figures with large followings that otherwise break the rules will, in rare occasions, carry a warning label.
But "newsworthiness," as a concept, is inherently subjective and vague. It is newsworthy when the president tweets something; what about when he retweets something? Multiple times in recent months, Twitter has taken action against accounts that have been retweeted or quote-tweeted by @realDonaldTrump. When the president retweeted a conspiracy-theory-laden account claiming that "Democrats are the true enemies of America," the account itself was suspended, causing the tweet to disappear from Trump's timeline. At this point, it is not clear what makes Trump's tweets, but not those he amplifies to his millions of followers, newsworthy.
Twitter also made a different decision on newsworthiness in 2017, when actress Rose McGowan's account was temporarily locked for tweeting "private information." The tweet was related to accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and an attached image contained a private phone number from an email signature of the person sending it.
Instead of looking at the politicians, Facebook has attempted to show its commitment to cracking down on misinformation elsewhere. This week, Facebook took down an "I love America" page with more than 1 million followers after reports uncovered that it was run by Ukrainians.
Abby Ohlheiser covers digital culture for The Washington Post.