Facebook is under pressure to explain why Infowars, a site known for promoting conspiracy theories, doesn't get booted off the social network as it cracks down on fabricated news.
After it admitted pages – including those run by Russian operatives – had scammed the social network with made-up news and video during the 2016 presidential election, Facebook forced through a series of changes designed to prevent a repeat, such as letting users flag content they think is false and then having third-party fact checkers examine the post. At the same time, lambasted by conservatives for what they say is a liberal bias, Facebook maintains it won't make the editorial decisions itself.
That position has made it the target of complaints over the past week. At a House hearing Tuesday over whether social media companies were suppressing certain political views, Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin pressed Facebook's head of global policy management Monika Bickert about why the network would not remove Infowars, which called the high school students who survived this year's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. "crisis actors."
Bickert's response: Infowars hasn't yet reached the threshold to have its entire page taken down.
The questions followed blowback after an event last week in New York with journalists that was meant to tout how it's fighting false news and misinformation.
When CNN reporter Oliver Darcy asked Facebook executives about Infowars, he was told by John Hegeman, the head of Facebook's News Feed, that the network does not "take down false news."
Infowars just being false "doesn't violate the community standards," Hegeman said, according to CNN, explaining that the site has "not violated something that would result in them being taken down."
Instead, Facebook's strategies against false information will push such stories down in the News Feed so fewer users see it, according to Facebook.
Here's a breakdown on the situation:
•What is Infowars? The Austin, Texas-based Jones launched the website in 1999. Jones, the site says, "is a unique voice that sifts through the information and exposes the underlying intentions."
President Donald Trump has thanked Jones for helping him win the presidential election. Jones, who also hosts "The Alex Jones Radio Show" on 160 stations in the U.S., has 2.4 million followers on The Alex Jones Show channel on YouTube.
•Why is Infowars controversial? On Infowars.com, Jones has promoted many conspiracy theories including labeling the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks an "inside job," and purporting the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting never happened and instead was performed by child actors. Some families affected by the shooting have sued Jones.
Jones also promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton operated a child sex ring at Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. On Dec. 4, 2016, a North Carolina man opened fire inside the pizza shop. Jones apologized to the restaurant owner.
Infowars' misidentification of a man as the shooter in the February mass shooting at Marjory Stone Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., has led to another suit filed against Jones and the site. Infowars later corrected the story.
•Why is Facebook getting heat for Infowars? Some think Facebook is trying to have it both ways with the false news situation. It lets users flag as "disputed" news articles they consider false; those posts then are checked by third-party fact-checking groups, which if they confirm the "disputed" nature will attach a link explaining why it's disputed.
But Facebook itself has shied away from judging what content is misleading, while at the same time becoming a major source for news, with about half of all Americans (47%) in 2017 saying they got some news from Facebook.
CNN's Darcy posted his story about the Facebook event, saying he "didn't get a good answer" from Facebook about why Infowars is allowed to keep its page on the network. Facebook responded: "We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech."
Subsequently, Kevin Roose, a reporter with The New York Times, equated the social network's position as similar to Trump's statement condemning violence "on many sides" in the 2017 white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. "Some very fine pages on both sides," Roose tweeted.
Facebook tweeted back: "We understand you strongly disagree with our position. We just don’t think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go. They seem to have YouTube and Twitter accounts too – we imagine for the same reason."
Facebook showed a video as part of Wednesday's event – you can see it on YouTube – during which it used Pizzagate as an example of hoaxes that can be dangerous, Roose noted on Twitter.
•What is Facebook's stance? Facebook expects its strategy of tamping down false content and misinformation, fact-checking, and removing monetization and advertising from false news-peddling pages will serve as an incentive to offenders.
Whether that will solve the problem remains to be seen. In the meantime, questions can still be asked of Facebook, says Alexios Mantzarlis, who heads The Poynter Institute-based International Fact-Checking Network, which assists Facebook in its evaluation process.
Among the important questions, Mantzarlis says in a story on Poynter's site: "Has the third party fact-checking product significantly reduced the reach of those InfoWars posts with demonstrably false content? If not, what is Facebook's strategy to ensure that it does?"
Contributing: Erin Kelly in Washington, D.C.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.