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Facebook Won’t Remove Doctored Content During The Canadian Election

Election authorities could still investigate false or misleading content like doctored videos, but the social media giant said it’s not its role to decide where the “line” is.

Posted on May 28, 2019, at 5:00 p.m. ET

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

An empty chair behind the name plate for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy waits to begin in Ottawa, May 28, 2019.

Facebook Canada said the social media giant won’t take down false or misleading content like doctored videos during the upcoming federal election campaign.

Representatives from the company told a committee of MPs from 11 countries Tuesday that it’s not Facebook’s role to decide the line between “free speech” and “censorship.”

Earlier, Canadian MPs on the committee — Liberal, Conservative, and New Democrat — voted unanimously to issue a second “standing summons” for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. The unprecedented move means that if either Zuckerberg or Sandberg step foot in Canada, they could immediately face summons to testify before the committee.

“We are very, very surprised that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg decided to ignore the summons of a parliamentary committee, particularly as we have international representatives here,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus.

“As far as I know, we were not even informed that he wasn’t showing up. To me, I’ve never seen a situation where a corporate head ignores a legal summons.”

The company decision to refuse to take down false content was a response to pointed questions from MPs about why Facebook is allowing a doctored video of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which was slowed down to make her sound impaired, to be shared across its platform.

“These are very important questions,” said Kevin Chan, Facebook’s policy lead in Canada, told reporters.

“That’s why we are here today. We welcome engagement with governments and legislators around the world, and we welcome the opportunity for governments of the world to tell us where they think we should be drawing the lines.”

Chan was speaking after a meeting of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy — an international committee of parliamentarians created in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Chan, along with Facebook global policy director Neil Potts, bore the brunt of MPs’ anger and frustration that CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg ignored the subpoena to testify before the committee.

Facebook Canada’s decision to leave content it knows to be false complicates its pledge, made only yesterday, to the Liberal government’s “declaration on election integrity.”

That declaration commits the social media giant to “work to remove fake accounts and inauthentic content on their platforms,” as well as “intensify efforts to combat disinformation to promote transparency.”

While Facebook may not remove doctored content, the Commissioner of Canada Elections — the independent office enforcing Canadian election laws — can still investigate the creation of fake or altered videos.

In advance of Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook sent out a long list of the steps it has voluntarily taken to help the Canadian government safeguard the election from misinformation and foreign influence, including creating a registry for political ads on the platform, funding civic engagement and media literacy campaigns, and trying to crack down on fake accounts.

But those efforts were clearly not enough for the political representatives around the table.

Damian Collins, the UK MP who has been spearheading the international investigation into Facebook, noted that while Facebook is cracking down on fake accounts, the company is still allowing misleading content to be spread by real users.

“Facebook takes more seriously someone spreading the truth from an inauthentic account then someone spreading lies from an authentic account,” Collins told reporters.

“That is the wrong priority.”

BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.