Facebook is under fire (yes, again) for its policy on fake news and sites that peddle conspiracy theories. Infowars is one such site that Facebook got asked about and has said it will not take down because it offers ‘opinion and analysis’. Instead, Facebook will show it to less frequently people via tweaking the newsfeed algorithm (80% less frequently according to Facebook). The image above shows their response and rationale, but it’s unlikely to be the only reason to save Infowars and pages like it. Why then? Simple; it is usually better to have a smaller amount of something than none at all. In Facebook’s case, that something is ad space.
Banning Infowars would also start a worrying precedent for the big blue misery machine; being an enforcer of fact-checking. Instead of merely prohibiting pages, Facebook wants to promote free speech and says both sides are to blame for wrong information out there. This statement further angered journalists invited to cover the announcement due to Facebook, in previous statements, calling similar events and parties ‘abhorrent‘. Losing all the conspiracy theory and unsavoury pages that peddle misinformation would annoy (or possibly lose) a lot of users, time spent on site and jeopardise other valuable metrics for Facebook. Facebook does not want that. Perhaps more worryingly, Techcrunch rightly points out that banning Infowars risks turning the site into something much more dangerous – a martyr. It is not hard to see how this would be an almost certainty with the dedicated following Mr Jones (Host of Infowars) has built up while peddling a variety of products from protein shakes to vitamins that have negligible benefits according to laboratories that tested them for Buzzfeed. Any way you look at it, this is a lose-lose situation for Facebook.
Ultimately, Facebook has simply fallen foul of the PR game again. Until it wants to pick a side or is forced to, Facebook needs to keep quiet. Facebook has a history of not taking responsibility for its actions, but this latest round shows a new challenge as a new era dawns thanks to whistleblowers and on-going investigations. Knowing which battles to have publically and which you should avoid will be key to Facebook’s continued unregulated success. Social platforms, but especially Facebook, are fighting detractors and angry people who want answers to some pretty big questions. Twitter is taking some bold steps to make the platform more robust and while it has a long way to go, and is by no means perfect, the same cannot be said of Facebook. The latest moves by Facebook show a machine that has chosen a side. The side is money. Free speech is a wild thing, you have the right to say anything you want but facts are facts, and you can choose to have a policy not to spread misinformation. Period. Facebook has chosen to go another way that just happens to keep them making some money.
Facebook made $5 billion net profit in Q1 of 2018 alone, banning Infowars and all sites that peddle crackpot theories is unlikely to bring Facebook to its knees. The opposite could also be true, if Facebook did ban such pages, perhaps money would go up because it’s a safer and less risky space for brands. The choice for people not to follow is always there but the argument of being given a platform is unlikely to go away fast without a mass migration of users or advertisers.
Social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and others all claim to connect, but in reality, have naturally become data sinkholes thanks to the models that surround them. Diminishing value to the user and lack of better options mean systems need to be gamed (dark patterns, engagementbait) to remain viable and grow bigger and bigger. The future may include regulation, user revolts, self-correction but until the fundamental economics become resolved, little will change. Facebook needs to make different decisions when it comes to free speech or learn to stop saying things, especially with battles it knows it cannot win.