Facebook said it takes down far-right pages that break rules. It hasn't.

A page belonging to far-right activist Tommy Robinson was not taken down, reportedly because it makes a lot of money for the company.
July 18, 2018, 12:15pm

Facebook’s head of public policy told Congress on Tuesday that when controversial pages like Infowars post a level of content that violates Facebook’s “threshold”, they are taken offline. An undercover investigation hours later proved her wrong.

Monica Bickert was facing questions from the House Judiciary Committee on whether the social media giant — along with YouTube and Twitter — censors conservative voices, when Rep. Jamie Raskin pointed out Infowars had repeatedly published spurious content about mass shootings, claiming they were performed by “crisis actors” who wanted to take people’s guns away.

Responding to a similar question from Rep. Ted Deutch, Bickert said that Facebook had removed some of Infowars’ posts but the page itself did not deserve to be banned.

“If they posted sufficient content that it violated our threshold, the page would come down,” she said. “That threshold varies depending on the severity of different types of violations.”

But hours after she made those claims, a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into content moderation on Facebook revealed — among other issues — that a Facebook page belonging to far-right activist Tommy Robinson was not taken offline despite breaching its threshold for banned content — because it makes a lot of money for the company.

Normally Facebook pages are deleted if they post five or more pieces of content that violate the site’s rules. But a reporter who went undercover at CPL, the external company in Dublin that Facebook uses to deal with flagged content, asked his manager there about why Robinson’s page was still online, and got this answer: “They have a lot of followers, so they’re generating a lot of revenue for Facebook.”

Due to the size of his following, Robinson’s page was reportedly given added protection in a process known as “Shielded Review” — a process normally reserved for government and news organizations.

This means that content flagged on these pages is given a second tier of moderation that's handled inside Facebook and not at the external contractors shown in the investigation.

Having finished her testimony to Congress, Bickert watched the Channel 4 show, and responded in a blog post.

“We want to make clear that we remove content from Facebook, no matter who posts it, when it violates our standards. There are no special protections for any group — whether on the right or the left,” Bickert said.

Facebook has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for how it handles political views, and crucially whether it favors one side over the other.

This week a Media Matters report was published suggesting that the conservative views get much greater exposure on Facebook than left-leaning viewpoints.

Media Matters studied engagement on 463 pages that regularly post American political news. Each page had more than 500,000 likes and posted at least five times a week.

“Right-leaning Facebook pages had a higher total number of interactions than left-leaning Facebook pages,” the report said. “Right-leaning pages had 23 percent more total interactions than nonaligned pages and 51 percent more total interactions than left-leaning pages. Images shared by right-leaning pages – including memes that frequently include false and bigoted messages – were by far the highest-performing content on the Facebook pages examined.”

This backs up Bickert’s statements to the committee Tuesday that Facebook does not censor one particular political view over another, despite the claims from numerous conservative voices, such as Diamond and Silk, who claim Facebook is biased against their pro-Trump content.

Indeed some people believe Facebook is being overly deferential to conservative voices.

The company last week held an off-the-record meeting with publishing executives in New York and among the dozen or so publications represented, there were six conservative-leaning outlets.

According to the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said that “Facebook had bought into the idea, promoted primarily by conservatives, that mainstream outlets such as the New York Times are liberal and should be counterbalanced by right-leaning opinion outlets.”

In particular Smith objected to the presence of the Daily Caller, questioning its journalistic standards.

Cover image: Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson outside Airdrie Sheriff Court after Mark Meechan was fined £800 for an offence under the Communications Act for posting a YouTube video of a dog giving Nazi salutes. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire URN:36143453 (Press Association via AP Images)

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