Good job, Face­book. But don’t stop now.

The so­cial-me­dia gi­ant’s pro­gram to root out mis­in­for­ma­tion likely will be a never-end­ing ef­fort.

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL -

FACE­BOOK IS go­ing af­ter me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion. Just don’t call it mis­in­for­ma­tion. The com­pany, which an­nounced the re­moval this week of more than 800 pub­lish­ers and ac­counts for po­lit­i­cal spam­ming, has stressed that its de­ci­sions were based on how users be­haved, not the con­tent they shared. It is easy to see why: Face­book is fight­ing the spread of dis­tort­ing ma­te­rial ahead of next month’s midterm elec­tions, but sidestep­ping any sub­jec­tive choices about mod­er­a­tion that could in­flame the pub­lic, or leg­is­la­tors.

The re­movals, which af­fected both right-lean­ing and left-lean­ing ac­counts, are a re­minder that in­flu­ence cam­paigns do not orig­i­nate only with for­eign ad­ver­saries. Peo­ple here at home have learned a few tricks from Rus­sia — whether they are med­dling for mone­tary profit or po­lit­i­cal gain. And while most Amer­i­cans cheer on Face­book root­ing out over­seas in­ter­fer­ence, shut­ting down do­mes­tic ac­tors raises con­cerns about free speech. Um­pir­ing truth is no easy task; it can be dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine what is le­git­i­mate ex­pres­sion and what are false­hoods too dan­ger­ous to let stand.

This dif­fi­culty ex­plains the so­cial-me­dia plat­form’s de­ci­sion to fo­cus on ob­jec­tive stan­dards around spam­ming. This week’s purged pages at­tacked the mar­ket­place of ideas; they did not con­trib­ute to it. By ar­ti­fi­cially in­flat­ing their au­di­ences through fake ac­counts, likes and shares, these ac­tors flooded users’ news feeds to cre­ate an il­lu­sion of U. S. con­sen­sus on key is­sues. The worst of them even fooled Amer­i­cans with see­saw­ing name changes cal­i­brated for pop­u­lar­ity: A page called “What About Hil­lary’s Emails?” one month could be called “Save the DREAM­ers” the next, and “Cap­i­tals in the Stan­ley Cup” the month af­ter that.

Face­book did not ex­am­ine the con­tent the pages dis­sem­i­nated, and some of them may not have shared in­for­ma­tion that is tech­ni­cally false at all. Still, this week’s re­movals and any that fol­low will likely elim­i­nate some prom­i­nent pur­vey­ors of mis­in­for­ma­tion — just as Alex Jones was banned from Face­book not for his sig­na­ture hoaxes but for vi­o­lat­ing its hate-speech poli­cies. Though Face­book may even­tu­ally have to an­swer the mis­in­for­ma­tion ques­tion di­rectly, cut­ting down on dis­tort­ing be­hav­ior is a smart way to elim­i­nate some of the noise on­line with­out prompt­ing even more shout­ing on Capi­tol Hill.

As Face­book gets more ag­gres­sive in polic­ing its plat­form, it should take care to pri­or­i­tize trans­parency where it can for users whose ac­counts are re­moved. It should also in­vest more in ap­peals pro­cesses: At least one of the pub­lish­ers named this week plans to plead his case. And Face­book users should feel warned: 800 ac­counts are gone, but many more likely lurk un­de­tected or undis­ci­plined. Face­book can­not af­ford to stop there.

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