The New Gatekeepers

Facebook’s PR game is showing

May 3, 2019

Facebook no doubt thought banning the accounts of prominent alt-right misinformation vectors like Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Laura Loomer would be a win-win. Not only would it allow the company to get rid of some obvious troublemakers, but it would also make Facebook look decisive about misinformation on its platform, a problem it has been widely criticized for ignoring. The plan was simple: send journalists an embargoed release about the ban, and watch all the favorable press roll in. Unfortunately for Facebook, it didn’t work out that way. The bans were reported before the accounts had all been taken down, so it gave Jones and Yiannopoulos and others lots of time to try to foment outrage over the move, and convince their followers to join them on some other platform. 

According to Facebook, the disconnect happened because it took longer to remove some of the accounts than the company assumed it would when it put together the PR strategy—the suggestion being that the account-blocking department and the communications department didn’t coordinate their strategy before they pushed the go button. Whether that’s what actually happened remains unknown, but the campaign looked ham-handed to say the least. It’s true that the company has bent over backwards in the past in an attempt to prove it is not biased against conservatives, but so far there’s no sign that it warned Jones or anyone else in advance, as some speculated.

The move was also a tacit admission that Facebook’s past efforts to curb disinformation haven’t been strong enough. Jones and InfoWars were actually banned last year, and their accounts were removed, but content from the site was still posted regularly by individual users. Now, Facebook has said that users won’t be able to post their content either, and if they try too many times their own accounts might be affected. That may be the right approach, but it calls attention to the fact that Facebook should have done that months (or years) ago, and didn’t.

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The fact that the execution of this strategy was fumbled so badly does two things. First, it reinforces the impression that this $500-billion corporation with tens of thousands of smart people working for it can’t seem to handle even the simplest PR rollout. Second, Facebook’s behavior suggests that this particular campaign may not have been seen, internally, as all that important—certainly not important enough to get right. It feels as though the PR win was the main goal, not a real crackdown— a small slam-dunk that didn’t require much work. And, in the end, Facebook was the one that got dunked on.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.