The Post’s editorial board wrote that Facebook and other social media companies “claim to be ‘neutral’ and that they aren’t making editorial decisions in a cynical bid to stave off regulation or legal accountability that threatens their profits. But they do act as publishers — just very bad ones.”
Of course, it takes one to know one. The Post, always a mix of strong local news, great gossip and spun-up conservative politics, is making a bid for the title of worst newspaper in America right now. It has run a string of scary stories about Covid vaccines, the highlight of which was a headline linking vaccines to herpes, part of a broader attempt to extend its digital reach. Great stuff, if you’re mining for traffic in anti-vax Telegram groups. The piece on the Black Lives Matter activist that Facebook blocked was pretty weak, too. It insinuated, without evidence, that her wealth was ill-gotten, and mostly just sneered at how “the self-described Marxist last month purchased a $1.4 million home.”
But then, you’ve probably hate-read a story about a person you disliked buying an expensive house. When Lachlan Murdoch, the co-chairman of The Post’s parent company, bought the most expensive house in Los Angeles, for instance, it received wide and occasionally sneering coverage. Maybe Mr. Murdoch didn’t know he could get the stories deleted by Facebook.
Facebook doesn’t keep a central register of news articles it expunges on these grounds, though the service did block a Daily Mail article about the Black Lives Matter activist’s real estate as well. And it does not keep track of how many news articles it has blocked, though it regularly deletes offending posts by individuals, including photos of the home of the Fox News star Tucker Carlson, a Facebook employee said.
What Facebook’s clash with The Post really revealed — and what surprised me — is that the platform does not defer, at all, to news organizations on questions of news judgment. A decision by The Post, or The New York Times, that someone’s personal wealth is newsworthy carries no weight in the company’s opaque enforcement mechanisms. Nor, Facebook’s lawyer said, does a more nebulous and reasonable human judgment that the country has felt on edge for the last year and that a Black activist’s concern for her own safety was justified. (The activist didn’t respond to my inquiry but, in an Instagram post, called the reporting on her personal finances “doxxing” and a “tactic of terror.”)
The point of Facebook’s bureaucracy is to replace human judgment with a kind of strict corporate law. “The policy in this case prioritizes safety and privacy, and this enforcement shows how difficult these trade-offs can be,” the company’s vice president for communications, Tucker Bounds, said. “To help us understand if our policies are in the right place, we are referring the policy to the Oversight Board.”
The board is a promising kind of supercourt that has yet to set much meaningful policy. So this rule could eventually change. (Get your stories deleted while you can!)