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Facebook Bans Several High-Profile Users

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A social media juggernaut says it's no longer OK with some of the things its users say. Facebook has banned several high-profile users known for espousing conspiracy theories and inflammatory rhetoric, among them Alex Jones, who created Infowars, and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. With us to explain more is Washington Post technology reporter Tony Romm. Thanks so much for coming in, Tony.

TONY ROMM: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So there are seven users who've been kicked off, right?

ROMM: Yeah, multiple users who have been permanently banned from Facebook. Now, the company has been under pressure for some time now to take action against content - posts, videos and otherwise - that users somewhat find repugnant, things like what Alex Jones and Infowars have been saying, conspiracy theories, attacks on the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School victims from the shooting a few years ago and so forth.

And in some cases, Facebook had imposed smaller time-outs on these individuals when they violated their policies. But the decision that Facebook announced yesterday was that folks like Alex Jones have been permanently banned from the platform. They're not going to be allowed back. And it's a sign from Facebook that it's looking to take a new, more aggressive approach to content that folks find to be kind of disgusting.

MARTIN: So Facebook, and seemingly all social media sites, have been accused by conservatives as - of having a liberal bias. How is this decision to kick these people off - how is that going to affect that perception?

ROMM: Yeah, Facebook, Twitter, Google, all of them sort of face a very difficult conundrum. On one hand, there are new demands for those companies to take more aggressive action when people or individuals or groups say repugnant things online. On the other hand, when they go too far, people on the opposite side of the political spectrum are willing to needle them for censorship. And that's what we've seen in the context of conservative users who have attacked Facebook and Google and others for being biased against right-leaning causes or news sites or whatever the case may be.

These criticisms go right to the top of the White House, where President Trump has been regularly critical of Facebook and Twitter for being biased against conservatives. So it puts these companies in a bind. If you talk to experts, it says it makes them less willing sometimes to be moderators of their own platforms because they don't want to deal with the political criticism.

MARTIN: I mean, it's also a question of how you make these decisions, right? I mean, what are the criteria to say that someone is too, quote, "dangerous" to be on your site?

ROMM: You're exactly right. It's what's the criteria. How far is too far? Is Facebook and Twitter applying their policies equally all of the time, to everybody? They've long been faulted for not being equal in handing out justice on their platforms, so to speak. And then it's the people who do that sort of reviewing in the first place.

Remember, it's not just artificial intelligence and powerful software that spots and takes down these posts. At the end of the day, sometimes it's real human beings who are doing the review. And so they face a lot of criticism on allegations that human reviewers can be biased.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, you're reporting this morning a different Facebook story, that the company has agreed with the government to greater oversight. What can you tell us?

ROMM: Yeah, Facebook has been under investigation here in Washington for about a year now for mishandling users' data after promising the government it would do better in 2011. So that settlement is coming to a close. Facebook had said that it's willing to pay a fine into the billions of dollars. This has been under discussion with the Federal Trade Commission. But as part of that settlement, we could see new checks on individual Facebook executives, the decisions they make, the apps that they put out and so forth. So it would be a major new form of privacy oversight for the company.

MARTIN: Tony Romm, a technology reporter at The Washington Post. Tony, we appreciate it.

ROMM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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