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On The Front Lines

Denouncing Facebook’s ‘Soft Censorship’ of Independent News Agencies, Rutherford Institute Warns ‘False News’ Policies Undermine Press Freedom

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Declaring that the manner in which Facebook has allowed its “false news” labeling policies to be applied to independent news organizations is contrary to the values embodied in the First Amendment, and is wholly inconsistent with standards of fairness and due process, The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of The Free Thought Project, a news organization that has had several of its news stories wrongly labeled “false news” by Facebook.

In a letter to Facebook, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute warn that the defects in Facebook’s “false news” policies are especially problematic for non-mainstream news sources that are less beholden to corporate interests, are free to report on controversial stories and issues that the mainstream media may shy away from, and depend on the exposure provided by Facebook. Unfortunately, for these very reasons, Institute attorneys note that non-mainstream news agencies are also more likely to be challenged and branded as “fake news” by Facebook, leading to “soft censorship.”

“Facebook, with its commitment to creating a worldwide community for the sharing of information, should have policies that foster and support new generations of journalists,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Given what is at stake when a news organization has its content deemed ‘fake news’ by Facebook, it is crucial that safeguards be put in place to assure, as much as possible, that a fake news designation is well-founded. Such safeguards do not presently exist. As things stand now, these policies can and are being used to suppress freedom of the press, resulting in a form of soft censorship.”

In the wake of criticism and threats of government regulation over the prevalence of fake news on social media, Facebook adopted policies intended to stem the flow of false information on its platform. It established a method by which content could be flagged for review and appointed a number of third-parties, such as Snopes and the Associated Press, to act as fact-checkers and make determinations whether content should be labelled as “false news.” Once a story is deemed “false news,” a push notification is sent to all persons who shared the story on social media. Entities found to have published “false news” also suffer a drastic reduction of the distribution of their content and lose the ability to advertise and monetize through Facebook.

In 2018, The Free Thought Project, a website “dedicated to holding those who claim authority over our lives accountable,” had several of its new stories labeled “false news.” One story reported on the discovery of a bunker that a veterans’ group suspected was being used for child trafficking. Another Free Thought report labeled “false news” reported on a U.S. Senator’s attempt to inspect a converted Walmart that was being used to hold refugee children, and made reference to earlier reports speculating about closed Walmarts being used by the government. A third post labeled “false” was simply a shared meme speculating about damage to the Pentagon as a result of the 9/11 attacks. As a result, Facebook imposed restrictions on Free Thought’s content distribution and ability to advertise and monetize.

In coming to Free Thought’s defense, The Rutherford Institute has askedthat Facebook adopt clearly-defined fact-checking policies and practices that respect First Amendment values and ensure fairness to news and information organizations, affording them the due process that fundamental fairness demands.