Technology

Midterms Loom, Meta CEO shifts focus from election

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made securing the 2020 US presidential election a top priority. To prevent the spread of misinformation on social networks, he met regularly with an election team of over 300 people from across the company. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on advocating for voter rights.

Facebook’s core election team, which was renamed Meta last year, has since been disbanded. Currently about 60 people are mainly focused on elections, while others are devoting their time to other projects. They meet an executive other than Zuckerberg. And the chief executive hasn’t talked to civil rights groups recently, even though some have asked him to pay more attention to the November midterm elections.

Four Meta staff aware of the situation said that protecting elections was no longer Zuckerberg’s top priority. Instead, said those not authorized to publicly say, that he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of immersive worlds in the metaverse.

Meta’s shift in emphasis, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as trust in the US electoral system reaches a point of weakness. Hearings on the January 6th Capitol Riot highlighted how precarious elections can be. And with dozens of political candidates running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was usurped in the 2020 presidential election, social media platforms continue to be a key vehicle for reaching American voters.

Misleading election information is rampant online. This month, “2000 Mules,” a movie that falsely claims Trump stole the 2020 presidential election, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, recording more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In a post about the film, critics said they predicted election fraud this year and warned against mail-in ballots and the use of electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies have also withdrawn some interest in the election. Twitter, which stopped displaying and removing misleading election information in March 2021, is preoccupied with a $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Musk suggested that the rules about what can and can’t be posted on the service should be reduced.

Katie Harbath, Chief Executive Officer of Anchor Change, a consulting firm that previously managed election policy at the meta, said, “Businesses must increase their efforts to protect the integrity of elections for years to come. “Many problems remain, including those who claim the 2020 election is fraudulent, and I don’t know how they are dealing with it,” he said.

The meta, which banned Trump from the platform along with Twitter after the January 6, 2021 Capitol Riots, has been working for years to limit political lies on the site. “With dozens of global elections before and after the 2020 US elections, we’ve taken a holistic approach to how elections work on our platform,” said Meta spokesperson Tom Reynolds.

According to Reynolds, Meta has hundreds of people across 40+ teams focused on election work. Every election, he said, the company is “building teams, technology and developing partnerships to eradicate fraudulent campaigns, limit the spread of misinformation, and maintain industry-leading transparency for political ads and pages,” he said.

Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said Twitter “continues to work to protect the integrity of the election dialogue and inform the public of our approach.” For the midterm elections, Twitter has provided information boxes on how to label political candidates’ accounts and vote in local elections.

The way Meta and Twitter handle elections will also have implications outside of the US given the global nature of the platform. In Brazil ahead of the October general election, President Jair Bolsonaro has recently questioned the country’s election process. There are also elections in October in Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia.

Sahar Massachi, executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and former Facebook employee, said, “Americans are almost certain to be treated by Rolls-Royce when it comes to integrity on all platforms, especially for American elections.” “So, no matter how bad it is here, think about how bad it is elsewhere.”

Facebook’s role in potential election distortion became clear after 2016, when Russian agents used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the US presidential election. In 2018, Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.

“The most important thing to me right now is to make sure no one interferes in the various elections around the world in 2018,” he said.

Since then, social networks have been effective in eliminating foreign efforts to spread disinformation in the United States, election experts said. But Facebook and Instagram are still grappling with conspiracy theories and other political lies on their sites, they said.

In November 2019, Zuckerberg hosted a dinner for civil rights activists at her home, and made phone calls and Zoom conference calls with them, promising to make election integrity a primary focus.

He also met regularly with the election team. He was asked to build a new system for detecting and eliminating misinformation for more than 300 employees from various product and engineering teams. Facebook also moved aggressively to remove toxic content by banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.

Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to the local government to fund polling place staff, pay polling place rent, provide personal protective equipment and other administrative expenses.

A week before the November 2020 elections, Meta froze all political ads to limit the spread of falsehood.

However, while the company has had success blocking foreign election interference on the platform, it has struggled with how to deal with Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false allegations of voter fraud. After the January 6 riots, Facebook banned Trump’s posts. He is eligible for reinstatement in January 2023.

Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who became a whistleblower last year, filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that the company removed the election safety feature too soon after the 2020 elections. Facebook prioritizes growth and engagement over security, she said.

In October, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would focus on the metaverse. The company has been reorganized and more resources have been devoted to developing the online world.

Meta also revamped the election team. Currently, the number of employees dedicated solely to elections is about 60, down from more than 300 in 2020, according to employees. Hundreds of other people are attending meetings about elections and Cross-functional teams working on different issues. The department building virtual reality software, a key component of the metaverse, has expanded.

Four employees said Zuckerberg had received reports but no longer met weekly with people focused on election security. Instead, they meet Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global operations.

Several civil rights groups said they were aware of a shift in priorities in the meta. Zuckerberg doesn’t engage with them as much as they used to, they said, and neither does the other Meta’s top executives.

“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of NAACP, who spoke with Zuckerberg and meta chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg ahead of the 2020 election. He “appears to go unnoticed and 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 Sandberg and Zuckerberg asked their organizations for recommendations in 2020 to combat misinformation. Their offer was largely ignored, he said, and he hasn’t contacted any management in over a year. He is currently working with Roy Austin, Meta’s Vice President of Civil Rights.

Meta added that Austin is the only major social media company that has a civil rights executive who meets with civil rights leaders every quarter.

In May, 130 civil rights groups, progressive think tanks and public interest groups wrote letters to Zuckerberg and the CEOs of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They have urged them to delete posts about the lie that Trump won the 2020 presidential election and slow the spread of misinformation before the midterm elections.

Yosef Getachew, director of Common Cause, a nonprofit public advocacy group that studied misinformation about the 2020 election on social media, said the company did not respond.

“Lies are coming to the fore in the midterm elections,” he said, pointing to recent politicians’ tweets. Michigan and Arizona A person who falsely said that the dead voted for the Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcement against Big Lie.”

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