Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seemingly stung by criticism that the social media giant he oversees has fueled right-wing extremism, is working hard to burnish his image as a defender of democracy. The New York Times reports that on Thursday “Facebook moved to clamp down on any confusion about the November election on its service, rolling out a sweeping set of changes to try to limit voter misinformation and prevent interference from President Trump and other politicians.”
The changes made include banning political ads one week prior to Election Day and clamping down on posts that discourage voting. Facebook also promised that if any politician falsely claimed victory, users of the website would not see the dishonest words but rather be shunted to an accurate report.
The Times acknowledged that some critics saw these moves as “too little and too late.” Tara McGowan, head of the digital media nonprofit Acronym, observed that the move to ban ads could have the perverse effect of giving greater dominance to right-wing outlets like Breitbart or Fox News, which already enjoy an immense audience on Facebook. “By banning new political ads in the final critical days of the 2020 election,” McGowan points out, “Facebook has decided to tip the scales of the election to those with the greatest followings on Facebook—and that includes President Trump and the right-wing media that serves him.”
Facebook’s policy shift came two days after Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a $300 million private donation to charities that would aid election security. Even this large charitable donation was met with criticism. As Vox reports, “The announcement of the gift on Tuesday emerged as an immediate flashpoint in the simmering debate over billionaire philanthropy and whether donations are the best way to enact change. That’s because, to many on the left and to Facebook critics more broadly, it is Zuckerberg’s company that has harmed democracy by tolerating hate speech, failing to curtail disinformation, or allowing Russian operatives to mess with the 2016 election.”
As social critic Anand Giridharadas has argued, relying on billionaire philanthropists like Zuckerberg is “as disturbing an idea as the idea of hiring arsonists to be firefighters because they, I guess, know a lot about fire.”
Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy is all the more galling because his arson continues unabated. Over the last week, many Facebook staffers were horrified by reports that strife in Kenosha, Wis., was being fanned by militia groups organizing on Zuckerberg’s website. “I fully plan to kill looters and rioters tonight,” read one post on a Facebook webpage for a militia group called the Kenosha Guard. “I have my suppressor on my AR [rifle], these fools won’t even know what hit them.” Despite Facebook users’ reporting this page as objectionable and calling for it to be taken down, it continued to function even as a 17-year-old allegedly shot three protesters, killing two and wounding one.
Fending off employee criticism, Zuckerberg said the militia Facebook pages weren’t deleted because of “an operational mistake.” According to BuzzFeed News, “Zuckerberg suggested to employees that the company had removed the event and militia page from the platform the next day,” but “internal company discussions…show that’s not true. The event was actually deleted the day after the shooting, not by Facebook, but by a page administrator for the Kenosha Guard. Later that day, Facebook removed the Kenosha Guard page itself.”
One reason to distrust Facebook’s claim that it will stamp out election misinformation is that the company has repeatedly violated its own stated rules in order to accommodate right-wing agitators. As NBC News reported last month, “Facebook has allowed conservative news outlets and personalities to repeatedly spread false information without facing any of the company’s stated penalties.… According to internal discussions from the last six months, Facebook has relaxed its rules so that conservative pages, including those run by Breitbart, former Fox News personalities Diamond and Silk, the nonprofit media outlet PragerU and the pundit Charlie Kirk, were not penalized for violations of the company’s misinformation policies.”
Diamond and Silk, a performing team of hyper-enthusiastic Trump fans, seem particularly egregious, because they have been exiled since April from Fox News for spreading Covid-19 misinformation.
As New York Times reporter Kevin Roose notes, “Diamond and Silk got tagged as a ‘repeat offender’ by Facebook earlier this year for sharing misinformation. They complained, and someone in Facebook leadership intervened and removed the strikes on their account.” On September 1, the most shared post on Facebook was by Diamond and Silk.
As Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria of the website Popular Information have revealed, Facebook has also turned a blind eye to rules violations used to build up a vast audience by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro and his website The Daily Wire. Popular Information has documented “a network of large Facebook pages—each built by exploiting racial bias, religious bigotry, and violence—that systematically promote content from The Daily Wire. These pages, some of which have over 2 million followers, do not disclose a business relationship with The Daily Wire. But they all post content from The Daily Wire ten or more times each day. Moreover, these pages post the exact same content from The Daily Wire at the exact same time.” The undisclosed collusion between The Daily Wire and these websites is a violation of Facebook’s rules. There’s scant evidence that Facebook has tried to curb the practice.
In donning the costume of a defender of democracy, Zuckerberg is pulling a con. There’s every evidence that Facebook continues to try to profit from promoting extremist voices, even in violation of its own stated rules. Zuckerberg’s recent actions are nothing more than a public relations exercise, likely designed to defuse any efforts by the Democrats to regulate Facebook if they win the White House and the Senate. But a radical overhaul of Facebook, one that limits Zuckerberg’s powers over democracy, is more urgent than ever.