In a speech at Georgetown University on Thursday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s policies on politicians and political ads, arguing that it is the platform’s responsibility not to judge content, but to uphold a wide definition of freedom of expression.
"While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be a hundred percent true," he said.
The platform announced last month that it would continue to exempt politicians from its independent fact-checking program under a “newsworthiness exemption”; in his remarks last week, Zuckerberg said the policies were “clarified” to make sure that users see “primary source speech from political figures that shapes civic discourse.” Political ads are kept in a special archive so that anyone can see what politicians are saying, he said. And if what a politician posts is considered “newsworthy,” he added, it is not removed even when it otherwise conflicts with Facebook’s standards.
“Now I know many people disagree with this. But in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” Zuckerberg said, adding: “As a principle, in a democracy, I believe that people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
Facebook’s policies in general — and Zuckerberg’s speech in particular — have sparked criticism, including from Bernice King, the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whom Zuckerberg referenced twice in his remarks), and from two of the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Earlier this month Warren placed an ad on Facebook falsely claiming that Zuckerberg and the platform had endorsed President Donald Trump as a way to call attention to the platform’s policy on political ads.
Discuss: Do you agree that Facebook should continue to exempt political ads from its fact-checking program, or do you think the platform has a responsibility to only allow posts from politicians that are accurate? Do Facebook’s policies have anything to do with the First Amendment? Should Facebook take steps to make sure voters know when a politician is using its platform to spread falsehoods? Do Facebook’s algorithms and business interests treat all expression equally? If Facebook wanted to do the opposite of what Mark Zuckerberg said in his speech — if it wanted to evaluate the veracity of statements by public officials and other influential figures — could it, or does its scale and infrastructure make that impossible?
Viral rumor rundown
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NO: “Over 1,100 people” did not die from “reactions” to the flu shot in 2018. YES: In extremely rare cases, people experience serious allergic reactions to ingredients in the flu shot. NO: No children have ever gotten polio from the flu shot. NO: Thimerosal, a preservative that is used in multi-dose vaccines and contains a trace amount of mercury, is not poisonous. NO: The single-dose syringes and nasal sprays used this flu season do not contain thimerosal.
Note: Another flu vaccine rumor this season falsely claims that getting a flu shot makes you “an active live walking virus.” It doesn’t. That rumor originated on a French parody website, SecretNews, in August.
YES: In January 2013, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (H.R. 4310) into law. NO: The measure, whose main purpose was to allow Congress to appropriate funds for defense programs in the 2013 fiscal year, did not authorize the use of government propaganda on U.S. citizens. YES: Section 1078 (23 paragraphs in a 682-page document) removed restrictions that had prevented the Broadcasting Board of Governors (now known as the U.S. Agency for Global Media) — which operates the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other government-funded media outlets — from distributing those outlets’ broadcasts within the United States. Previously, those reports — created, by law, for international audiences and designed to promote democracy around the world — were available only outside the U.S.
Note: This benign section of HR 4310 has prompted false viral rumors that the bill made it legal for media organizations to intentionally lie to the American public.
Also note: The mission statements of both VOA and RFE/RL include ethics codes citing recognized standards of quality journalism.
NO: President Donald Trump did not call Sergio Mattarella, the president of Italy, “President Mozzarella” during a joint press conference or at other events at the White House last Wednesday. NO: Trump did not say that the United States and Italy had been allies “since ancient Rome.” YES: In his opening remarks at the press conference, Trump said that “the United States and Italy are bound together by a shared cultural and political heritage dating back thousands of years, to ancient Rome.
Note: This is an example of “engagement bait”: sensational — and often false — online content intended to drive engagement (likes and shares) on social media platforms to build a large following that can later be monetized. Engagement bait accounts tend to have a theme — for example, “adorable” animals or “amazing” history photos.
Also note: Two Twitter accounts — @hoaxeye, run by fact-checker Janne Ahlberg, and @PicPedant — regularly debunk engagement bait.
Idea: Ask groups of students to monitor one or more engagement bait accounts for one week, then report their observations. What percentage of posts were false? Which posts got the most engagement? What were the actual sources of some of the photos shared by the accounts?
Discuss: How do press freedoms work? Could similar laws compromising press freedoms be enacted in other countries with press protections, including the United States? Should governments be able to prosecute journalists who refuse to name government sources who leak confidential information? Should governments be able to prosecute the leakers? How should governments balance national security with press protections?
Idea: Contact one or more local journalists and ask them about their experiences with governments obstructing their access to information that is in the public’s interest. How frequently do they receive information that is redacted?
Another idea: In the U.S., teach students about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), then show them how to file a FOIA request for a piece of public information about a topic that affects them (such as school budgets).
ABC News still has not explainedhow video of a nighttime machine gun demonstration at a Kentucky shooting range was broadcast on World News Tonight on Oct. 13, described as “appearing to show Turkey’s military bombing Kurd civilians” in northern Syria. While there is no evidence that ABC News knowingly misrepresented the video, critics continue to point out that many people will assume that it did — and will extend this cynical conclusion to other news outlets until the network credibly explains the error. (So far, the network has said only that it “regrets the error” and has removed the video from its website.)
Last Monday, the day after the clip was broadcast, Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir pointed out that the video had been posted to Twitter on Oct. 9 — the day the Turkish offensive into northern Syria began — by Ibrahim Melih Gökçek, a Turkish politician known for spreading disinformation, with text claiming that it showed explosions of U.S. ammunition provided to Kurdish forces. Last Tuesday, an unnamed source at ABC told Snopes.com that the footage had come from someone in a “sensitive position” on the Turkish-Syrian border. The video of the machine gun exhibition in Kentucky has been online since 2017.
Note: This item was adapted from a longer piece written by Peter Adams, a co-author of The Sift, and published by Poynter.
Discuss: How often do errors of this magnitude occur at standards-based mainstream news outlets? In what ways is ABC News affected by this error? Are other news outlets affected as well? What positive steps has ABC taken in response to this error? What mistakes has it made? Have other news outlets responded? If so, how?
Another idea: Have students write a joint letter to ABC News, asking why and how this error occurred.
Student journalists are filling local news voids left by more than 2,000 shuttered or merged news organizations, The New York Times reported on Saturday. As an example, the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, has served as Ann Arbor’s only daily newspaper for more than a decade, according to the Times. Student reporters across the country have even broken stories of national and international importance, such as the Arizona State University student who was the first to report late last month that Kurt Volker, the head of ASU’s McCain Institute for International Leadership, had abruptly resigned as the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine.
Discuss: How does local news coverage help communities and residents? What can happen if communities don’t have local news organizations? What “watchdog” activities do local journalists regularly perform?
Note: One example of a watchdog activity — attending public meetings — is mentioned in the Times’ report about The Michigan Daily.
Idea: Have students investigate the state of local journalism in their area. Are there any communities that have no local news coverage? If so, why? Did a local news organization close? How long has the community been without news coverage? Are there any efforts underway by students or others to fill the void? How many communities have fewer sources of local news now than in years past?
An algorithm designed to reduce judicial bias in the criminal legal system — the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) — was found to contain biases of its own by a 2016 ProPublica investigation. This “risk score” tool is among several assessments that judges can use in deciding whether defendants should be kept in custody or allowed out before trial. Last week, the MIT Technology Review published an interactive story that lets people adjust parameters in the COMPAS algorithm to make it more fair. In the process, readers learn how existing social and institutional biases can influence algorithms, and how improving them inevitably requires difficult trade-offs, with human costs.
Discuss: Can algorithms reduce the influence of human biases? Can algorithms ever be free of those same biases? Can the data on which algorithms are trained be biased? What other processes could be put in place to increase the accuracy of algorithms (for example, COMPAS scores)? Are algorithms sometimes better than you at knowing what you’ll find interesting?
Idea: Use the interactive elements in this article to help students understand what COMPAS’s predictive algorithm does, then draw parallels to similar algorithms with which students are more likely to be familiar, such as ones that use predictions to suggest social media content and connections. Then explore the following questions: What trade-offs are involved in algorithms that make prediction-based, individualized recommendations for videos and social media content? (See the links in the above “Note” about Pinterest.) What biases and false assumptions might such suggestion algorithms contain?
“The accounts of world leaders are not above our policies entirely,” Twitter stated in a blog post last Tuesday, clarifying policies announced in June that tweets by government officials and political candidates that violated the platform’s rules may be left up, with a notice covering the problematic language, if they directly contributed “to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern” or helped to maintain “a robust public record.”
The company went further last week, tweeting that users will not be able to “like, reply, share or retweet” tweets with a label. They will be able to read why the label was applied and click through to see the tweet; they also will be able to “quote tweet” the material by adding a personal message above the tweet and posting it to their own account. At the time Twitter made this announcement, it noted that no labels had yet been applied.
As it did in June, Twitter noted that posts would be removed — and accounts banned — if they promoted terrorism or targeted individuals with calls for violence or self-harm or by sharing private information. Those exceptions, the company said, supersede any public interest value the posts in question may have.
“When it comes to the actions of world leaders on Twitter, we recognize that this is largely new ground and unprecedented,” the company said in its unbylined blog post. The platform has repeatedly been urged to suspend the account of President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) for violating its rules.
Discuss: Should social media companies apply a different standard to posts from world leaders? Is Twitter’s policy of removing objectively dangerous posts from world leaders a good one? Is Twitter’s policy of leaving other posts from world leaders that violate its community standards up on the site, but behind a notice with additional context, a good one? How should Twitter decide who counts as a “world leader”?
Idea: Divide students into teams based on their positions on this question. For example, one student group might think that world leaders should be treated like any other user on social media, while another might believe that all posts from world leaders should remain public so people know what they have posted. Then ask each to create a list of reasons their position is the correct one, and submit that list to the other team to rebut.