Apr 21, 2020 - Technology

Facebook tries to draw a clear line on coronavirus protests

Photo illustration of a hand with a scissors cutting a protest event from a facebook timeline
Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Facebook's decision to take down event listings for certain protests against state and local pandemic measures is putting conflicts between public health and free speech into stark relief.

Driving the news: CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Monday on ABC that Facebook would treat some efforts to organize protests against social distancing rules as "harmful misinformation" and take them down.

The company later clarified that protests which specifically announced plans to flout distancing rule would be removed, while those that opposed the policies but obeyed them would be allowed to organize.

Facebook's perspective: The social network believes it has been consistent and clear about its intent to bar misinformation about the coronavirus as particularly objectionable because of its likelihood of causing immediate harm.

Yes, but: The right to peacefully protest government policies is constitutionally protected and widely cherished by Americans.

  • And yet: Some protest participants, according to reports, crossed the line from opposing the policies to violating them.

Why it matters: Facebook keeps finding itself playing the role of government without either the machinery to do the job right or the accountability that it should bear.

  • Supporters of these protests, and some Facebook critics, argue that the company shouldn't be entrusted with making politically and legally complex decisions about who gets to use its platform to organize and who doesn't.
  • Some public health experts, and other Facebook critics, argue that the social distancing rules are a matter of life and death for many citizens, and Facebook has a moral obligation to protect citizens' lives.
  • The press and the public will keep pushing Facebook to make tough choices on specific questions about specific protests, just as the company has been challenged on political advertising.

Between the lines: Facebook has long been trying to chart a difficult course between the wishes and demands of conservatives and Trump supporters, who argue that the platform squelches their free speech, and more liberal users and critics, who hold that Facebook has allowed lies and misinformation to flourish.

  • In a fraught environment in which Trump has tweeted his support for protesters to "liberate" their states from Democratic governors, the company's moves are sure to bring wrath from Republicans.
  • While the right will object for now, it's easy to imagine the shoe on the other foot in the future, with liberals outraged at Facebook stifling political opposition.

What's next: Facebook has invested time and money to create an independent content oversight board that's supposed to help it deal with thorny speech issues. This one might make a good maiden case for its docket.

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