Facebook let associates of US president Donald Trump, including his son Donald Trump Jr., post misinformation on its platform during the final months of the presidential election campaign, and did not take proportionate action against these users to avoid being accused of “anti-conservative” bias, reported the Washington Post. The revelations come after months of accusations by Republican leadership that Facebook is biased against their party, and only days after these accusations were aired in a high-profile hearing by a US Senate.
The accusation — that Facebook let slide objectionable content by those close to political power — is almost a mirror image of the one it has faced in India. Earlier in August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook chose to not take action on hate speech posted by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fearing adverse impacts to its business interests in the country.
What did Facebook (not) do in the US?
Sources told the Post that Facebook users such as a pro-Trump political financier group, the president’s eldest son and others had received preferential treatment from the social media giant.
- Strike removed from Trump’s son’s Instagram account: Facebook-owned Instagram removed a strike against Donald Trump Jr who had shared misinformation. The strike would have made him a “repeat-offender”, which would have attracted penalties such as reduced visibility in searches. A former Facebook employee reportedly said that this was only one of the numerous strikes removed for the sake of president Trump’s family members.
- Plan to improve fact-checking system sees opposition: Improvement to Facebook’s fact-checking and content review system were stymied over concerns that it would have a “disproportionate impact” on conservative users: meaning, conservative users are ostensibly more likely to share misinformation, and enforcement would inevitability look like anti-conservative bias, which Facebook wants to avoid.
- Delayed enforcement with respect to right-leaning pages: The Post found that over a dozen right-leaning Facebook pages had been sharing content that had been debunked by Facebook’s own third-party fact-checkers twice in the past 90 days. This, it said, qualified these pages as “repeat offenders”. But these pages still attract significant engagement and are purchasing ads, despite penalties prescribed to repeat offenders.
- A head of a fact-checking organisation that has partnered with Facebook took the example of a group “America First Action”, which had reportedly shared several false posts about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. This person told the Post that pages such as America First Action are repeatedly flagged for offences, but they prospered nonetheless.
- Right-wing pundits escape fact-check labels: Right-wing media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Pamela Geller had shared content that has been debunked by third-party fact-checkers, but these posts were not labelled as misinformation. Limbaugh had claimed false stories about Biden and US infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.
A Facebook spokesperson told the Post that the company does not disclose details about its repeat-offender system, for fear that people might game the system. However, the company claimed that the pages in question had indeed been penalised for sharing misinformation. The company did not specify the penalties.
Facebook the target of right-wing ire
Facebook, along with other social media websites, have for long been accused of being biased against right-wing, Republican politicians. Last month, Facebook and Twitter had limited the distribution of the New York Post’s articles accusing Biden’s son Hunter Biden of corruption. The companies cited concerns over how the information in these stories was sourced. However, this attracted widespread criticism by Republican leaders. In a Senate hearing last week, both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were accused of disproportionately censoring Republican leaders such as the president over people of other affiliations.
Accusations eerily similar to those faced by Facebook in India
Facebook has been accused of giving preferential treatment to people affiliated to the ruling BJP government. The company reportedly did not take down hate speech posts by T. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, who had called for the murder of Rohingya Muslim immigrants. These posts were taken down, and Singh was banned from the platform, only after they were reported in the press.
Some senior executives in Facebook India had also been linked to the BJP. Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta has noted how Ankhi Das (who left Facebook recently), and Shivnath Thukral (Das’ interim replacement as India public policy head) had worked closely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the 2014 general elections.
However, all these ties have not stopped IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad from accusing Facebook of the exact opposite — that it is, in fact, biased against “right-of-centre” ideology. Prasad had also attacked fact-checkers that have partnered with Facebook, calling them “shady”, and with no credibility. This argument, too, is hold little water: an AltNews’ report found that most of Facebook’s fact-checking partners failed to check BJP-led misinformation.