Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made securing the 2020 US election a top priority. He met regularly with an election team, which included more than 300 people from across his company, to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on upholding voters’ rights.
Facebook’s core election team, which was renamed Meta last year, has since been disbanded. About 60 people now focus primarily on the elections, while others split their time on other projects. They meet another leader, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not spoken with civil rights groups recently, even though some have asked him to pay more attention to the midterm elections in November.
Safeguarding the election is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s primary concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier for growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
The shift in focus at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as confidence in the US electoral system reaches a fragile point. The hearings into the Jan. 6 Capitol riots underscored just how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running in November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was barred from the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.
Election disinformation remains rampant online. This month, “2000 Mules,” a movie that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by the New York Times. In articles about the film, commentators said they expected voter fraud this year and warned against the use of mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.
Other social media companies have also withdrawn some of their focus from the election. Twitter, which stopped labeling and removing election misinformation in March 2021, is concerned about its $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.
“Companies should step up their efforts to prepare to protect the integrity of elections over the next few years, not back down,” said Katie Harbath, chief executive of consultancy Anchor Change, who previously managed election policy at Meta. “Many issues, including candidates claiming the 2020 election was fraudulent, remain and we don’t know how they are handling them.”
Meta, which along with Twitter banned Mr. Trump from its platforms after the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, has worked over the years to limit political lies on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a spokesperson for Meta, said the company has “taken a holistic approach to how elections have been conducted on our platforms since before the 2020 US elections and through the dozens of global elections since then. “.
According to Reynolds, Meta has hundreds of people spread across more than 40 teams focused on election work. With every election, he said, the company “builds teams and technologies and develops partnerships to end manipulation campaigns, limit the spread of misinformation, and maintain industry-leading transparency around ads and content.” political pages”.
Trenton Kennedy, a spokesperson for Twitter, said the company continued “our efforts to protect the integrity of the election conversation and keep the public informed of our approach.” For the midterms, Twitter tagged the accounts of political candidates and provided information boxes on how to vote in local elections.
How Meta and Twitter handle elections has implications beyond the United States, given the global nature of their platforms. In Brazil, which holds general elections in October, President Jair Bolsonaro recently expressed doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia also hold elections in October.
“People in the United States are almost certainly getting the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to integrity on any platform, especially for US elections,” said Sahar Massachi, executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and former Facebook employee. “And so, even if it’s bad here, think how much worse it is everywhere else.”
Facebook’s role in potentially distorting the election became apparent after 2016, when Russian operatives used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the US presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.
“The most important thing that matters to me right now is to make sure no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” he said.
The social network has since become effective in weeding out foreign efforts to spread disinformation in the United States, election experts said. But Facebook and Instagram are still plagued with conspiracy theories and other political lies on their sites, they said.
In November 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a dinner at his home for civil rights leaders and held conference calls and Zoom with them, vowing to make election integrity a primary focus.
He also met regularly with an electoral team. More than 300 employees from various product and engineering teams were asked to create new systems to detect and remove erroneous information. Facebook also took aggressive action to remove toxic content, banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.
Around the same time, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay polling station rental fees, provide personal protective equipment and other administrative costs.
The week before the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political advertising to limit the spread of lies.
But while there have been successes – the company has kept foreign election interference off the platform – it has struggled to deal with Mr Trump, who has used his Facebook account to amplify false claims of electoral fraud. After the Jan. 6 riot, Facebook banned Mr. Trump from posting. He is eligible for re-election in January 2023.
Last year, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistleblower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election security features too soon after the 2020 election. prioritizing growth and engagement over security, she said.
In October, Mr. Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would focus on the metaverse. The company restructured, with more resources devoted to developing the online world.
Meta has also reorganized its electoral team. Now, the number of employees whose job is solely to focus on elections is around 60, up from more than 300 in 2020, according to employees. Hundreds more attend election meetings and are part of cross-functional teams, where they work on other topics. Divisions that build virtual reality software, a key part of the metaverse, have grown.
Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those focused on election security, the four employees said, although he does receive their reports. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s President of Global Affairs.
Several civil rights groups said they noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg is not involved in discussions with them as he once was, nor are other senior Meta executives, they said.
“I’m concerned,” said NAACP Chairman Derrick Johnson, who spoke with Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. , out of mind.” (Ms. Sandberg has announced that she will be leaving Meta this fall.)
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, another civil rights group, said Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg had asked his organization for recommendations in 2020 to counter election misinformation. Their suggestions were largely ignored, he said, and he has not contacted either leader for more than a year. He is now interacting with Meta’s Vice President of Civil Rights, Roy Austin.
Meta said Austin meets with civil rights leaders quarterly and added that it is the only major social media company with a civil rights leader.
In May, 130 civil rights organizations, progressive think tanks and public interest groups wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the chief executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They called on them to remove posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of election misinformation ahead of midterms.
Yosef Getachew, director of the nonprofit public advocacy organization Common Cause, whose group researched 2020 election misinformation on social media, said the companies did not respond.
“The Big Lie is at the center of the midterm debates with so many candidates using it to preemptively declare that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets by politicians from Michigan and Arizona who erroneously said that the dead vote for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop fighting the big lie.”