Facebook knew that the spread of political misinformation was flourishing on its platform – but the company largely failed to address concerns from employees who raised alarms, a report found.
Workers flagged the rampant conspiracy theories and proliferation of QAnon-related content before the 2020 presidential election and Jan. 6 siege on the US Capitol, according to new internal documents obtained by the New York Times.
But employees’ calls to action sparked by false claims about the election results were either ignored or mishandled, the Times said.
Some of the newly published reports were obtained by Facebook product manager turned whistleblower Frances Haugen, whose disclosures have renewed concerns about the role the company played in the attack on Capitol Hill by Donald Trump supporters.
An internal probe analyzed the company’s efforts to silence Stop the Steal supporters, who backed the false claims that Trump won the election, according to the article.
“Enforcement was piecemeal,” and Facebook should “do this better next time,” the documents said.
The morning of the riot, user complaints about posts that incited violence had soared, a spreadsheet analyzed by Facebook employees reportedly showed.
As the mob stormed the Capitol, Facebook mass-deleted pro-violence posts, a worker told the Times. Other employee recommendations, like preventing groups from changing their names to incite violence, were not implemented, according to the report.
“I wish I felt otherwise, but it’s simply not enough to say that we’re adapting, because we should have adapted already long ago,” one employee reportedly wrote. “There were dozens of Stop the Steal groups active up until yesterday, and I doubt they minced words about their intentions.”
“I’ve always felt that on the balance my work has been meaningful and helpful to the world at large. But, honestly, this is a really dark day for me here,” another worker reportedly wrote.
A day after the attack, the company found user content that violated company policy had been published at a rate of seven times higher than normal. Many posts “suggested the overthrow of the government” or “voiced support for the violence,” according to the newspaper’s review of the documents.
The findings are at odds with the company’s public spin on its role in the violence. Earlier this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the deadly riot at the Capitol was “largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate.” Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg told Congress his company “did our part to secure the integrity of our election.”
Internal concerns about hate speech and fake news surrounding the 2020 contest had been brewing in Silicon Valley at least a year and a half earlier, the article said.
One Facebook researcher wrote that she received baseless content from QAnon — a fringe movement which the FBI classified as a potential terror threat — within days of opening a new right-leaning test account, according to the report.
Within weeks, her feed reportedly “became a constant flow of misleading, polarizing and low-quality content,” thanks to content suggested by Facebook’s algorithms.
A left-leaning test account also was fed political misinformation and “low quality” memes, the worker, who quit in August 2020, reportedly said.
Facebook was “knowingly exposing users to risks of integrity harms,” she reportedly wrote in her exit letter, citing the network’s slowness on cracking down on baseless conspiracy theories.
About a week after the election, a company data scientist wrote to coworkers that 10 percent of all US political content being viewed were posts spreading the claim that the election results could not be trusted, the newspaper found.
Facebook began relaxing its political oversight after the election, even as Trump posted “They are trying to STEAL the Election,” on Nov. 4, three former employees told the paper.
“They should be trying to understand if the way they designed the product is the problem,” Yaël Eisenstat, an ex-Facebook worker in charge of the safety and security of election ads, told the paper.
Company spokesman Andy Stone told the outlet the site was “proud” of its work safeguarding election content.
“The responsibility for the violence that occurred on Jan. 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them,” he reportedly said.
The Times article comes a day after the Washington Post reported that another whistleblower told regulators the company blew off 2017 concerns about hate speech as a “flash in the pan.”
While “some legislators will get pissy” Facebook is “printing money in the basement,” a Facebook official reportedly said.
Facebook and Twitter did move to censor the The Post’s exposé of Hunter Biden’s influence peddling in The Ukraine before the election, a move that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later told Congress was a “total mistake.”