Political concerns weigh on content decisions
This story is based on seven internal documents as well as four interviews with former Facebook employees and people familiar with Facebook’s operations. The documents are included in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided in redacted form to Congress by the legal counsel for Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. The redacted versions were reviewed by a consortium of news organizations including POLITICO.
According to the documents, sensitive content moderation decisions and significant changes to Facebook’s news feed and news and recommendations features undergo a review process in which public policy team members come to the table alongside other teams and weigh in with potential political concerns.
One Facebook manager defended public policy’s teams’ role within the company’s decision-making process in an internal post on Aug. 18, 2020, following concerns that the team handling policy in India made special exceptions for hate speech by a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party. (That team reports to Ajit Mohan, Facebook’s vice president and managing director in India.)
“Public policy teams are important to [the] escalations process in that they provide input on a range of issues, including translation, socio-political context, and regulatory risks of different enforcement options,” the manager wrote. The manager added that the policy teams’ perspective is one of many that Facebook leaders take into account before making decisions.
Kaplan’s public policy team was one of the key groups overseeing XCheck.
But the team’s influence extends beyond that. Kaplan’s team intervened to protect right-wing figures such as provocateur Charlie Kirk, the conservative publication Breitbart and activists Diamond and Silk from consequences for violating Facebook’s policies against misinformation, according to the 2020 document, excerpts of which previously appeared this year in BuzzFeed News. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gotten personally involved in dictating how content moderation will operate at the company, according to the document and several internal posts.
Differences from Twitter and Google
In message board conversations dating back to 2019, Facebook employees took particular issue with one aspect of the company’s internal structure: The teams charged with writing and enforcing Facebook’s content rules answer to Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy.
That’s different from other social media companies such as Twitter, which separates its “trust and safety” team — a group that handles difficult questions around online speech — from its policy team, which interacts directly with governments around the world. A similar firewall exists at Google, where the heads of the company’s content and public policy teams answer to different executives.
“People bring up over and over again this idea that having both those functions tied to the same group is dangerous because they have different interests,” Haugen said in a virtual briefing arranged by her public relations team with POLITICO and other news outlets on Oct. 15.
Facebook spokesperson Corey Chambliss said the company’s content policy and public policy teams “operate independently” and that the content policy team relies on input from teams throughout the company, including “Operations, Engineering, Legal, Human Rights, Civil Rights, Safety, Comms and Public Policy.”
“In these instances Public Policy is just one of many groups consulted,” Chambliss said. “And, while the perspective of Global Public Policy is key to understanding local context, no single team’s opinion has more influence than the other.”
Kaplan did not respond to a request for comment on his role in the decisions. But Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne said in a statement Sunday that “recycling the same warmed over conspiracy theories about the influence of one person at Facebook doesn’t make them true.”
“The reality is big decisions at Facebook are made with input from people across different teams who have different perspectives and expertise in different areas,” Osborne said. “To suggest otherwise is inaccurate.”
‘There should be a firewall’
Even so, the dynamic among the teams has drawn scrutiny in previous years. At one point, Kaplan’s team intervened to pare back proposals aimed at improving civic discourse on the platform for fear they would anger conservatives.
“There should be a firewall between the two teams,” said Evelyn Douek, a Harvard scholar who researches private content moderation. “As long as they are representing that [political] considerations don’t play into how they do content moderation, they should make that real and have an internal structure that mirrors their external representations. That is something that other platforms have done.”
The newly obtained documents show that employees had concerns and warnings about a host of content decisions.
The 13-page December 2020 presentation takes issue with the public policy team’s insistence on applying exempting right-wing publishers from punishment for spreading misinformation, Facebook’s decision to overturn a fact-check on a post that claimed “abortion is never medically necessary” after an uproar from Republican politicians, and Facebook’s “newsworthiness” exception to its misinformation policy, which allowed political figures to speak more freely than other users.
The author — whose name is redacted in the copy POLITICO reviewed — said that “almost all” the examples had been reported in the news media, “but I thought it’s worth documenting in a single note.”
The document also calls out the public policy team’s involvement in broader product changes and launches at Facebook.
“When significant changes are made to our algorithms (ranking, recommendations) they are usually reviewed by staff from public policy,” reads the December 2020 document. “Public policy typically are interested in the impact on politicians and political media, and they commonly veto launches which have significant negative impacts on politically sensitive actors.”
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