InfoWars Dustup Exposes Facebook’s Unease With Conservative News Sites

Alex Jones
Associated Press

Facebook is again drawing criticism for its handling of fake news on the platform — this time, around its tentative treatment of InfoWars, one of the Internet’s leading peddlers of conspiracy theories.

The social media giant’s executives said Alex Jones’ media operation, which traffics in bogus theories like one recent report about Democrats starting a Second Civil War on July 4, should have a place on Facebook.

It’s a question of free speech.

“We just don’t think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go,” Facebook said in a statement on Twitter. “They seem to have YouTube and Twitter accounts too — we imagine for the same reason.”

CNN raised the question about why InfoWars continues to have a home on Facebook during a meeting this week in New York City where News Feed executives came to tout the social media site’s campaign against misinformation.

One executive admitted to being troubled by InfoWars’ conspiracy theories, describing them as “really problematic.”

A Facebook spokesperson later added that the social media giant is striving to find the proper balance between encouraging free expression and promoting authenticity — and that “down-ranking,” or de-emphasizing, inauthentic content strikes the proper middle ground.

Jones blends the fantastical with the factual, planting seeds of doubt about horrific events, like questioning whether actors had staged the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre that killed 20 first graders and six adults, or claiming the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “inside job” orchestrated by “globalists” in the U.S. government.

John Oliver does a great job of deconstructing InfoWars here.

Media Matters president Angelo Carusone, a frequent and outspoken critic of Jones, said that in Facebook’s perceived role as the digital public square, even the crazy guy in the park deserves a soap box. But here are larger questions about Facebook’s role in amplifying that speech.

“Don’t take away the soap box,” Carusone said. “But definitely don’t give them a megaphone.”

Carusone said Facebook hasn’t been forthcoming about whether it has turned off the mechanisms that fan the popularity of a video or post that’s gathering momentum on the platform.

“If something you post on Facebook has sharp velocity — a lot of people engage with it, and fast — Facebook will give it an extra kick, it’ll amplify it,” said Carusone. “It’s not clear they’ve taken away the rewards.”

There are larger questions about Facebook’s appetite for challenging the accuracy of conservative news outlets — a sore subject since the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook’s supposed liberal bias, and its alleged willingness to suppress conservative viewpoints, became a recurring GOP talking point during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony over the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.

Mike Ananny, an assistant journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, conducted extensive interviews with fact-checkers who are working to tamp down misinformation on Facebook.

But interviews conducted from August 2017 through January revealed a surprising detail about the potentially false stories that Facebook sends to news organizations to debunk.

Fact-checkers said they didn’t see mainstream media stories flagged as suspect — or those from conservative media, or InfoWars.

“When I talked to fact-checking organizations, they said it’s really surprising to us that InfoWars never appears on this list,” Ananny said. “It’s such an obvious high-traffic site. It has high visibility. It’s shocking that it doesn’t appear on this list.”

It’s unclear whether that’s chanced since the report was published in April by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

“If your fact checkers are telling you InfoWars is not quality information, if you know it’s not quality information, and your goal is to increase the quality of information on your platform, why do you not block this?” asked Ananny.

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