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The viral video implying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was drunk at a public event has underscored Facebook's role in disseminating misinformation.
A Silicon Valley congressman now says that the company’s refusal to take it down after a week’s worth of public outcry could have grave implications for the 2020 election.
“It's a very dangerous precedent to allow doctored videos,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) told VICE News. “It's a problem that's going to further perpetuate falsehoods and propaganda in the public square.”
Khanna, whose district isn't far from Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, joined a chorus of critics this past week calling for the company to remove the Pelosi video outright.
But how they want Facebook to do that remains hazy, highlighting how the platform’s scale and complexity turn seemingly easy content calls into philosophical questions over Facebook’s role in political debate.
“They're not a platform devoid of journalistic responsibility”
“They're also not a platform devoid of journalistic responsibility,” Khanna said. “They are a place where people come for news and information. They need to have certain standards.”
Facebook tries to avoid the appearance of editorial decisions made by more traditional media companies, yet two top Democrats have framed the episode in precisely those terms in recent days.
Pelosi herself said the Silicon Valley giant’s refusal to take down a false video shows that it “wittingly” allowed Russian misinformation to affect the 2016 election. In a commencement address on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton likewise suggested the platform recklessly disregarded the truth.
“It wasn’t even a close call,” Clinton said. “The video is sexist trash. And YouTube took it down, but Facebook kept it up.”
Facebook officials have told media outlets in the wake of the scandal that “we don't have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.” Instead, the company’s moderators down-ranked the Pelosi video in its algorithm and surrounded the post with additional reporting from fact-checkers.
To Khanna and others, that’s not enough. “I believe they should be taking down doctored videos, whether those videos are of Nancy Pelosi or of Donald Trump,” he said. “If they want to allow for satire, then the video needs to clearly, in bold, flashing letters, say that this is satire, with warning labels all over.”
But social media and misinformation experts warn that crafting such a policy without creating damaging side effects isn’t so easy. And the fact that Fox News and other pro-Trump media outlets are among Facebook’s top drivers of engagement adds the potential for political conflict that the company is keen on avoiding.
“A lot of the commentary about the Pelosi video...does not put forward any consistent or realistic enforcement standard other than ‘take down stuff I don't like,’” Alex Stamos, formerly Facebook’s information security honcho and now an occasional critic of the company, tweeted. “Remember: when you request responsibility, you also grant power.”
What’s more, it’s not always clear how social platforms enforce policies when they do have them.
Take YouTube. A company spokesperson told VICE News that the Pelosi video clashed with its deceptive practices policy, which largely focuses on spam and scams. There’s no language that clearly prohibits untrue political information.
Such discrepancies will be key as activists, campaigns, and foreign actors pump more political information into social platforms over the next 18 months.
“My view is that we can't leave the broad thinking of new-media ethics simply to the judgment of private companies,” Khanna said. “What I would love to see is some of these social media companies come together with the academy, with leaders of thinking on this in journalism schools, to come forward with principles that should guide these kind of decisions and that can be adopted broadly by Twitter and YouTube and Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram, and that can be tweaked. There needs to be some common set of principles.”
“This is something that is really the responsibility of these tech companies,” he added. “Have some sense of obligation to the country.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Cover: Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call via AP Images in his Cannon Building office on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)