Editor’s Note: In coordination with the Biden administration and others, social-media platforms including Facebook and the Associated Press have long used dogwhistle terms including “misinformation” to describe facts and opinions with which they disagree or find politically inconvenient.
(Headline USA) In the wake of its first negative-growth quarter in its roughly 20-year history, Facebook owner Meta is quietly curtailing some of aggressive, anti-conservative censorship—which it has long maintained is designed to thwart voting “misinformation” or “foreign interference” in U.S. elections as the November midterm vote approaches.
It’s a sharp departure from the social media giant’s multibillion-dollar efforts to “enhance” the accuracy of posts about U.S. elections by inserting leftist propaganda, and to placate Democrat lawmakers after their outrage over learning the company had mined people’s data and had allowed Donald Trump to leverage its algorithms during the 2016 campaign.
“It’s something that’s so politically fraught, they’re more trying to shy away from it than jump in head first.” said Katie Harbath, the former Facebook policy director. “They just see it as a big old pile of headaches.”
The pivot is raising alarm on the uber-censorious Left about Meta’s priorities and about how some might “exploit” the world’s most popular social media platforms to spread “misleading” claims, launch “fake” accounts and rile up partisan “extremists.”
“They’re not talking about it,” said Harbath, now the CEO of the tech and policy firm Anchor Change.
“Best case scenario: They’re still doing a lot behind the scenes,” Harbath said. “Worst case scenario: They pull back, and we don’t know how that’s going to manifest itself for the midterms on the platforms.”
Since last year, Meta has shut down an examination into how “falsehoods” are amplified in political ads on Facebook by indefinitely banishing the researchers—many of whom had a demonstrably left-wing bias—from the site.
Public communication about the company’s response to election “misinformation” has gone decidedly quiet.
Between 2018 and 2020, the company released more than 30 statements that laid out specifics about how it would stifle U.S. election “misinformation,” prevent “foreign adversaries” from running ads or posts around the vote and subdue divisive “hate speech.”
Top executives hosted question-and-answer sessions with reporters about new policies.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote Facebook posts promising to take down “false” voting information and authored opinion articles calling for more regulations to tackle any “foreign interference” that might be harmful to Democrats.
But this year Meta has only released a one-page document outlining plans for the fall elections, even as potential “threats” to the Democratic vote remain clear.
Meta says that elections remain a priority and that policies developed in recent years around election “misinformation” or “foreign interference” are now hard-wired into company operations.
“With every election, we incorporate what we’ve learned into new processes and have established channels to share information with the government and our industry partners,” Meta spokesman Tom Reynolds said.
He declined to say how many employees would be on the project to “protect” U.S. elections full time this year.
During the 2018 election cycle, the company offered tours and photos and produced head counts for its election response war room.
But the New York Times reported the number of Meta employees working on this year’s election had been cut from 300 to 60, a figure Meta disputes.
Reynolds said Meta will pull hundreds of employees who work across 40 of the company’s other teams to monitor the upcoming vote alongside the election team, with its unspecified number of workers.
The company is continuing many initiatives it developed to limit election “misinformation,” such as a “fact-checking” program started in 2016 that enlists the help of “news” outlets to investigate the veracity of popular “falsehoods” spreading on Facebook or Instagram.
The Associated Press is part of Meta’s “fact-checking” program, as are many other partisan outlets compromised by funding from extremist operatives such as George Soros and the Chinese Communist Party.
This month, Meta also rolled out a new feature for political ads that allows the public to search for details about how advertisers target people based on their interests across Facebook and Instagram.
Yet, Meta has stifled other efforts to identify election “misinformation” on its sites.
It has stopped making improvements to CrowdTangle, a website it offered to newsrooms around the world that provides insights about trending social media posts.
“Journalists,” “fact-checkers” and “researchers” used the website to analyze Facebook content, including tracing popular “misinformation” and who is responsible for it.
That tool is now dying, former CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman, who left Meta last year, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring.
“There’s no real shortage of ways you can organize this data to make it useful for a lot of different parts of the fact-checking community, newsrooms and broader civil society,” Silverman told the AP.
Not everyone at Meta agreed with that “transparent” approach, Silverman said.
The company has not rolled out any new updates or features to CrowdTangle in more than a year, and it has experienced hourslong outages in recent months.
Meta also shut down efforts to investigate how “misinformation” travels through political ads.
The company indefinitely revoked access to Facebook for a pair of New York University researchers who they said collected unauthorized data from the platform.
The move came hours after NYU professor Laura Edelson said she shared plans with the company to investigate the spread of “disinformation” on the platform around the Jan. 6, 2021, “attack” on the U.S. Capitol, which is now the subject of a House “investigation.”
“What we found, when we looked closely, is that their systems were probably dangerous for a lot of their users,” Edelson said.
Meanwhile, the possibility of regulation in the U.S. no longer looms over the company, with lawmakers failing to reach any consensus over what oversight the multibillion-dollar company should be subjected to.
Free from that threat, Meta’s leaders have devoted the company’s time, money and resources to a new project in recent months.
Zuckerberg—after devoting nearly half a billion dollars of his own private money to swinging the outcome of the 2020 election in Joe Biden’s favor—dove into this massive rebranding and reorganization of Facebook last October, when he changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms Inc.
He plans to spend years and billions of dollars evolving his social media platforms into a nascent virtual reality construct called the “metaverse”—sort of like the internet brought to life, rendered in 3D.
His public Facebook page posts now focus on product announcements, hailing artificial intelligence, and photos of him enjoying life. News about election preparedness is announced in company blog posts not written by him.
In one of Zuckerberg’s posts last October, after an ex-Facebook employee leaked internal documents showing how the platform magnifies “hate” and “misinformation,” he defended the company.
He also reminded his followers that he had pushed Congress to modernize regulations around elections for the digital age.
“I know it’s frustrating to see the good work we do get mischaracterized, especially for those of you who are making important contributions across safety, integrity, research and product,” he wrote on Oct. 5. “But I believe that over the long term if we keep trying to do what’s right and delivering experiences that improve people’s lives, it will be better for our community and our business.”
It was the last time he discussed the Menlo Park, California-based company’s election work in a public Facebook post.
With Facebook having posted its first losses ever, it’s clear, however, that the previous formula wasn’t working. The alienation of half its user base, paired with the deterioration of the product itself, was beginning to impact the company’s business in ways that conservatives have long expected—and prayed—that it would.
Whether Zuckerberg can modernize and reinvent the now damaged brand remains to be seen.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press