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.

Go deeper

Updated Sep 18, 2020 - Health

U.S. coronavirus updates

Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Note: Does not include probable deaths from New York City; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

49% of U.S. adults said in a recent Pew survey they would not get a coronavirus vaccine if one were available today.

Why it matters: All major political and demographic groups said they are less likely to get a vaccine now than they were in May, although Republicans and Black adults are the least likely.

Trump launches "Embers Strategy" in coronavirus hotspots

President Trump during a news conference on July 23. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Trump administration is sending increased personal protective equipment, coronavirus test kits and top health officials like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx to coronavirus hotspots across the U.S. as part of a campaign called the “Embers Strategy," White House officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: The push is part of a larger effort to show that President Trump is taking the pandemic seriously, something White House officials describe as a "renewed focus."

Jul 29, 2020 - Health

Fauci: Trials have "consistently" shown hydroxychloroquine is "not effective"

NIAID director Anthony Fauci told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday that all of the randomized, controlled clinical trials for hydroxychloroquine have "consistently" shown that the anti-malarial drug is "not effective" for the treatment of COVID-19.

Why it matters: President Trump has doubled down on his promotion of hydroxychoroquine as a coronavirus treatment in recent days, even after the FDA ended its emergency use authorization due to possible heart complications.