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Zuckerberg far from politically neutral, multiple employees allege in redacted US Congress papers

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By Nikhila Natarajan

New York, Oct 25 (IANS) Facebook top guns interfered to allow US politicians and celebrities post whatever they wanted, overriding the network’s professed high moral ground designed to curb misinformation and harmful content, leaked internal documents unveiled by The Financial Times said.

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Employees have claimed that Facebook allowed right-wing figures to break the platform’s own rules, after being stung by accusations of bias from conservatives.

“In September 2020, just ahead of the US presidential election, the author of an internal memo wrote that ‘director-level employees’ had ‘written internally that they would prefer to formally exclude political considerations from the decision-making process’,” FT said in a breaking news story Monday.

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In another internal note dated December 2020 and reported by FT, an employee claimed that the company’s public policy team blocked decisions to take down posts “when they see that they could harm powerful political actors”.

“In multiple cases, the final judgment about whether a prominent post violates a certain written policy are made by senior executives, sometimes Mark Zuckerberg,” the author added.

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In a further example from 2019, Zuckerberg was alleged to be personally involved in a decision to allow a video that made the claim that abortion is “never medically necessary”.

The post, which had been taken down by a moderator, was reinstated.

The documents, part of a wider cache dubbed the “Facebook Papers”, were disclosed to US regulators and provided to Congress in redacted form by the legal counsel of whistleblower Frances Hougen.

A consortium of media organisations have procured these redacted papers from the US Congress.

In a curtain raiser to more media attention, Haugen tweeted that she was looking forward to meeting a joint committee of British parliament Monday drafting online safety rules.

While Facebook declined to respond to FT’s queries, Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said: “At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13bn and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”

A former Facebook executive told the FT that Zuckerberg had long told staff to aim for what he called “unimpeachable neutrality”.

But three other former employees said they observed “how Facebook applied its own rules in an inconsistent and haphazard way, with special treatment for celebrities”.

One former integrity team employee said: “For the people running Facebook, it seems like they care much more about not appearing biased than actually not being biased. Often their efforts at the former make the latter worse.”

In a memo published in July 2020, first reported by BuzzFeed, Facebook said it had decided not to reduce the distribution of “political publishers” ahead of the election but noted that such a move could risk “accusations of shadow-banning and/or FB bias against certain political entities” during the November vote.

Former US President Donald Trump, who sued Facebook, Twitter and Google in July claiming that they unlawfully silence conservative voices, has accused Facebook of bias.

Facebook did intervene to censor Trump – when he claimed that Covid-19 was less lethal than flu. But the December 2020 memo alleged that moves to take down “repeat offenders” were often reversed, “influenced by input from Public Policy”, FT reported.

The employee wrote that decisions were made to exempt “publishers on the grounds that they were “sensitive” or likely to retaliate”.

In an exit note, another employee involved in efforts to curb hate speech on the platform accused Facebook of giving special treatment to media outlets Breitbart, which has since 2018 been included on the company’s high-quality news tab.

“We make special exceptions to our written policies for them and we even explicitly endorse them by including them as trusted partners in our core products,” the staffer said.

In June 2020, one employee floated the idea of an “internal oversight board” composed of Facebook employees based in offices globally to help the company make decisions.

The then head of Facebook app Fidji Simo replied saying Facebook had been working on creating a small internal oversight board team.

“It’s so obviously a conflict of interest,” one former employee from the integrity team told the FT. “They should be as far away from each other as possible, not reporting to the same bosses.”

Facebook is in the midst of multiple negative stories. The Wall Street Journal reported that it has an internal system called “cross-check” which was sometimes used to shield the fat cats even when they broke the platform’s rules, via whitelisting.

The social media giant has said it is working to clean up the system.

Separately on Friday, a whistleblower filed a complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, first reported on by the Washington Post and reviewed by the FT, alleging that Facebook’s public policy team would “over-index towards pleasing Trump and the Trump administration”.

(Nikhila Natarajan tweets @byniknat)



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