As Democrats brace for a renewed onslaught of foreign and domestic disinformation in the leadup to the presidential election, Joe Biden’s campaign is leaning on Facebook Inc. to take a stronger stance.
In an interview, campaign deputy counsel Patrick Moore condemned the social-media company, reflecting the Democratic Party’s renewed push for accountability from the tech giants, who they see as responsible for protecting the election from the kind of disinformation that sowed chaos in 2016.
“Facebook has made public promises, they have made both public and private acknowledgments of their shortcomings, and they have taken what is effectively zero material steps to address misinformation,” Moore said. “We view ourselves to be better prepared to address it. We shouldn’t need to. No candidate should need to. Facebook promised that they wouldn’t do it again. And we are going to look to hold them to it.”
The campaign — which says it has dozens of people working to counter disinformation — is focused on Facebook because of its reach. About 43 percent of voters consume news on the platform (compared with 21 percent for YouTube and 12 percent for Twitter), according the Democratic National Committee. (The data is from 2018, the most recent year for which numbers are available.) A central concern for Democrats is Facebook’s algorithm, which officials say amplifies divisive content and disinformation.
“Free expression is part of the messy process of democracy and we take our responsibility to protect it seriously,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We’ve made dramatic progress combating misinformation and dismantling foreign campaigns meant to interfere with our election and will continue this fight. At the same time, we’re committed to making sure everyone has the accurate information they need to hold our leaders accountable through voting.”
The Biden campaign also complained that Facebook has ignored requests to remove videos of the former vice president that have been altered to make him appear disoriented or to change his words, an official said. Further, the campaign is not satisfied with Facebook’s fact-checking process. It lacks transparency about how much material is being tracked and does not work quickly enough, an official said.
Facebook has increasingly worked to remove and disclose coordinated campaigns on the network — taking down 50 such networks last year. But Biden staffers believe the company’s actions are insufficient to protect the election from the kind of disinformation campaign Russia waged to help elect Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.
Moore argued that there is a strong imperative for Facebook to change. “Once maybe may be written off by history as an accident or unintentional, but a second presidential election in which you have widescale disinformation in the days and weeks leading up to an election is not something that will be forgotten by history or by the public,” Moore said.
This month, the campaign ratcheted up pressure on the company by urging Americans to sign an open letter to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. In the letter, Biden supporters called on the platform to stop amplifying “untrustworthy content,” promptly fact-check viral content related to the election and ban all political advertising in the two-week period before the election unless it’s fact-checked.
In a response, Facebook cited the actions targeting the platform on the left and right, arguing that “the people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them.” The company went on to say that, “there is an election coming in November and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it.”
The debate over what should appear on social-media platforms has roiled an already divided Congress. Even as Democrats call for the tech giants to halt the flow of disinformation and hate speech, Republicans describe such efforts as censorship. When Twitter added fact-checking labels to two Trump tweets making false claims about voter fraud, the president signed an executive order limiting social-media companies’ protections from being sued for what appears on their sites.
Facebook’s decision to allow problematic posts by Trump on its platform has been the source of significant criticism. The Biden campaign believes Trump as testing Facebook’s rules to see if there will be a response from the platform — in order to get away with increasingly violating boundaries, an official said.
To be sure, this week Facebook removed a series of Trump campaign ads and posts for violating the company’s policy against “organized hate.” The ads, which referred to “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups,” included an image of an upside-down red triangle, which was used by Nazis to identify political victims in concentration camps.
Like the Biden campaign, the DNC says Facebook, Google and Twitter are ultimately responsible for fighting disinformation. Bob Lord, the DNC’s chief security officer, acknowledges that the party has a good day-to-day relationship with the platforms. They communicate regularly about takedown requests, he said, which “gives us the moral clarity and authority to give the platforms much more crisp feedback around their overall programs.”
But Lord said Facebook could do so much more. “They’ve gotten rid of a lot of other things, so we know that they have the technical capabilities,” he said. “But when it comes to disinformation, they simply have lacked the will to do it.”