Facebook has tried its hardest to avoid taking action against posts from President Trump that broke its own rules. But on Wednesday, that long-running effort finally ran aground against a rambling diatribe from the president about children and the coronavirus.
It’s a shift that could have an enormous impact on Trump’s re-election effort. While political spending is a small fraction of Facebook’s overall revenue, political ads make up a more significant chunk of campaign spending. Team Trump has made Facebook—with its uneven enforcement of its rules against disinformation—a cornerstone of its campaign, spending more than $35 million in ads on the social network in 2020.
Facebook’s top-trending news stories of the day are almost always from the president or his supporters, according to the social media tracking tool CrowdTangle. The Trump campaign even spent $325,000 promoting Facebook pages run by Brad Parscale, the president’s former campaign manager, according to The New York Times.
In an appearance on Fox News Wednesday morning, Trump told the hosts of Fox & Friends that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.
“If you look at children, children are almost—and I would almost say definitely—but almost immune from this disease,” Trump said. “They’ve got much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this. And they don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”
After Trump posted a clip of the appearance with those comments on his Facebook page, the social media site took down the post. “This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19, which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” Facebook said in a statement.
In response to Facebook’s takedown of the president’s video, the Trump campaign accused the social media company of “bias” and claimed that Trump’s statement proclaiming children “almost immune” from the virus that causes COVID-19 was instead a statement merely that “children are less susceptible to the coronavirus.”
“Another day, another display of Silicon Valley’s flagrant bias against this President, where the rules are only enforced in one direction,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella said in a statement. “Social media companies are not the arbiters of truth.”
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers in an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last week that the company would take down medical misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, including specific false claims about the existence of a “cure” for the disease like hydroxychloroquine.
While the company’s content policies have long applied to ordinary users, Facebook has sought to avoid enforcing them against public officials, including Trump.
In 2019, the company announced that it would treat all posts by public officials as exempt from its rules under a 2016 policy that exempted otherwise infringing content in the event that the company considered it “newsworthy.”
“Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say?” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said. “I don’t believe it would be. In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.”
As Trump’s social media posts have become more erratic and offensive over the past few months, Facebook’s hands-off policy towards officialdom has put greater pressure on the company to act.
“At this point I give them a participation trophy and not applause,” Lisa Kaplan, founder of the disinformation-tracking firm Alethea Group told The Daily Beast of the company’s decision to take down the Trump post. “It appears Facebook is following the lead of other tech companies by enforcing its policies. I’m heartened to see them taking action because the danger of disinformation coming from any trusted voice is that people see it, believe it, and change their behavior. Especially in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, changing your behavior could be the difference between life and death.”
In May, Twitter applied a warning label to a tweet from Trump threatening violence against protesters in the wake of the Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd. Twitter’s decision to label Trump’s threat that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” as “glorification of violence” which could risk “inspir[ing] similar actions” led some employees at Facebook to protest their company’s relative inaction by coordinating a virtual walkout at the company.
Twitter took things a step further against Trump’s campaign account late Wednesday, just hours after Facebook removed the president’s misleading post. The social media giant said the president’s “Team Trump” account would not be allowed to tweet again until it removed video of Trump making the same claim about children being “almost immune” to the coronavirus. A Twitter spokeswoman quoted by The Washington Post said the video “is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation. The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng