March 9, 2021

Researchers want Facebook’s Oversight Board to evaluate the platform’s exemption of politicians from fact-checking after new research from Brazillian fact-checking organization Agência Lupa pointed to 29 examples of President Jair Bolsonaro spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

“What they’ve done is they’ve shown based on the evidence in the report that, depending on the country that you’re in, the policies are applied in very different ways,” said Peter Cunliffe-Jones, a senior adviser to the International Fact-Checking Network. “If that flawed exemption policy is one the Facebook Oversight Board can review, it should.”

The research, first reported on by Brazillian news outlet Folha de Sao Paulo, looked at Facebook videos and live sessions where Bolsonaro appeared to question the merits of social distancing, promote debunked falsehoods about mask-wearing and advocate for the usage of the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

“Output on platforms drives news coverage (as recent research showed) and it creates a sense of normalizing certain types of problematic speech,” said Claire Wardle, U.S. director of the journalism nonprofit First Draft, referring to a recently published study by her organization. “The Oversight Board should absolutely get involved here. At the moment they’re focused on looking at decisions based on what was taken down, but this is simply not good enough from my perspective.”

Facebook pushed back on the report’s findings, saying in a statement to the IFCN that none of the examples violated the company’s policies against COVID-19 misinformation.

“While we prohibit false claims about unproven treatments and safety measures like social distancing, we allow discussions about the impact of policy measures like lockdowns or developments in scientific research,” the statement read. “These policies apply to everyone and we’ve enforced them against elected officials worldwide, including in Brazil.”

Facebook took down a video posted by Bolsonaro in March 2020 that claimed hydroxychloroquine was “working in all places” as a treatment for COVID-19. In the list of posts collected by Agencia Lupa, Bolsonaro used a different tactic by emphasizing the lack of side effects for a list of experimental treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, as a reason Brazilians should at least try them as a way to end the pandemic.

Lupa also flagged a claim by Bolsonaro that cited a flawed German study to argue mask-wearing can be harmful to children. This study has been debunked by American fact-checking organization Health Feedback, and the claim appears to contravene the platform’s policy on discouraging good health practices. However, Facebook’s statement maintained none of the flagged posts violated its policies on COVID-19 misinformation.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, sees Facebook’s lack of action as a double standard.

“Much of the most consequential misinformation come from major politicians, and our research documents that the public knows this,” he said. “Exempting politicians from policies meant to reduce the spread of misinformation may keep them happy, but I think the public will wonder why powerful people are so often exempt from rules meant to apply to the rest of us.”

Cunliffe-Jones empathized with the challenge of an American company like Facebook creating a misinformation policy that applies globally.

“I think if they were more transparent about the process, they’d acknowledge that they do know and understand the U.S. market better than others, and there’s a rollout of those processes,” Cunliffe-Jones said. But he emphasized that Facebook has an outsized influence on global discourse, and argued the company needs to put more resources into making sure its policies around COVID-19 misinformation are consistently and effectively applied.

“The point of applying policies, particularly around misinformation that’s a threat to public health, is to protect the public,” Cunliffe-Jones said. “What that’s saying is that the public in Brazil, or next time it might be in India or it might be in Tanzania or it might be elsewhere, isn’t as worthy of protection as the public of France or the U.K. or the U.S.”

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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