Facebook ‘fired employee who collected evidence of pro-conservative bias’, leaked messages show

The report alleges that senior Facebook employees, including vice president of global public policy Joel Kaplan, were intervening on publishers' behalf

Adam Smith
Monday 10 August 2020 12:19 BST
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Facebook has been under pressure to crack down on extremist content and activity
Facebook has been under pressure to crack down on extremist content and activity

A senior Facebook engineer who collected evidence of the company providing preferential treatment to right-wing pages was reportedly fired by the company for breaking its “respectful communication policy.”

According to internal posts seen by Buzzfeed, organisations including right-wing publisher Breitbart, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Trump advocates Diamond and Silk, and conservative video maker Prager University (PragerU) have all received preferential treatment to stop their posts being blocked by Facebook’s policies.

Buzzfeed cites internal posts made on Workplace, the company’s business version of Facebook. The “tasks” the engineer had cited as examples of the alleged special treatment were made private and inaccessible to employees, according to another Workplace post from another employee.

On 22 July an employee reportedly posted to the company’s misinformation policy group, pointing out that someone had acted on Breitbart’s behalf to clear misinformation strikes.

“A Breitbart escalation marked ‘urgent: end of day’ was resolved on the same day, with all misinformation strikes against Breitbart’s page and against their domain cleared without explanation,” the employee apparently wrote.

That employee also alleged that a partially false rating applied to an Instagram post from Charlie Kirk was flagged for “priority” escalation by Facebook vice president of global public policy and former Bush administration employee Joel Kaplan.

Kaplan reportedly argued against moves that would make Facebook less politically polarising but were described as “antigrowth” and requiring “a moral stance”.

Similar action was reportedly taken in favour of PragerU, with the same employee claiming a “two weeks long effort” to stop the site from being given Repeat Offender status which would have limited its reach and advertising business.

“It appears that policy people have been intervening in fact-checks on behalf of *exclusively* right-wing publishers, to avoid them getting repeat-offender status,” another employee wrote in the same misinformation group.

This culture was also apparently experienced by a journalist who worked for one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners.

“Of the publishers that don’t follow the procedure, it seems to be mostly ones on the right. Instead of appealing to the fact-checker they immediately call their rep at Facebook,” said the journalist, who spoke to Buzzfeed anonymously because they were not authorised to speak publicly.

“They jump straight up and say ‘censorship, First Amendment, freedom.’ I think Facebook is a bit afraid of them because of the Trump administration,” they added.

“I do think we’re headed for a problematic scenario where Facebook is going to be used to aggressively undermine the legitimacy of the US elections, in a way that has never been possible in history,” one Facebook employee apparently wrote in a group on Workplace.

“We defer to third-party fact-checkers on the rating that a piece of content receives,“ Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement.

”When a fact checker applies a rating, we apply a label and demotion. But we are responsible for how we manage our internal systems for repeat offenders. We apply additional system wide penalties for multiple false ratings, including demonetization and the inability to advertise, unless we determine that one or more of those ratings does not warrant additional consequences."

The Independent reached out to Facebook for further clarification about Kaplan’s reported actions and the anonymous journalists’ statements, as well as more information regarding the Workplace posts.

In a statement, Facebook said: “We defer to third-party fact-checkers on the rating that a piece of content receives. When a fact checker applies a rating, we apply a label and demotion. But we are responsible for how we manage our internal systems for repeat offenders," the company said.

"We apply additional system wide penalties for multiple false ratings, including demonetization and the inability to advertise, unless we determine that one or more of those ratings does not warrant additional consequences. To this day, we remain the only company that partners with over 70 fact-checking organizations to apply fact-checks to millions of pieces of content".

This news comes as bias against conservatives by social media companies remains a talking point among the right-wing. President Trump has begun to implement policy which would restrict the freedom of speech of these companies – as well as all websites – unless they are politically neutral.

Political neutrality has never been a caveat of the First Amendment, which does not in fact cover private companies, only government organisations.

The notion of bias has also recently been raised as an Instagram algorithm error recommended pro-Trump hashtags when searching for Joe Biden messages, which could have ramifications for the November 2020 presidential election.

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