People who worked with Joe Biden’s presidential campaign warned Facebook repeatedly about the use of violent rhetoric on its platform during the 2020 election heat. However, a series of email exchanges show how the social media giant sometimes ignored them.
Daily Reuters obtained a cache of emails that show how concerned Democrats were about misinformation posted on Facebook as Election Day neared. They also highlight how frustrated they were with Facebook’s response. These concerns were further heightened on January 6, when platforms such as Facebook and others were used for planning the violent insurrection that took place at the United States Capitol.
These top Biden operatives still believe that Facebook has not changed much in six months. This is leading to growing concerns about how Facebook misinformation might play in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond. The most serious concerns were centered around the use of Facebook by former President Donald Trump’s family.
A Team Trump Facebook account posted a September video of Donald Trump Jr., baselessly claiming Democrats intended to use “millions of fraudulent ballots” to cheat the election. He also called for “able-bodied people” to join an election security “army”.
On September 22, a senior Biden campaign official emailed Facebook, “The fact this video is still being displayed on your platform –and is being used to recruit any kind of, I quote, army for Trump’s election security effort’ — was astonishing.” This cannot be reconciled with any of the voting policies and voter suppression Facebook has published over the last 3 years, and which we have been discussing privately in several dozen conversations.
After a Facebook official replied explaining that the video didn’t violate any site policies, the Biden official responded in frustration.
“The Trump Campaign received the message from them that they might post videos on your platform claiming that millions of fake votes will be used for election fraud. The solution is for able-bodied people to enlist into an ‘army. Their shrieks of fraud increase and their calls for ‘enlistment’ multiply. “Good gracious,” wrote the Biden official. “It is hard to believe that this is the precedent you intend to set.”
They said, “We implored you to approach the problem with seriousness & a sense of mission. This has been lacking until now. We might make some progress if the mental gymnastics and effort required to keep this post on your platform were devoted to fulfilling your responsibility to democracy.
Also, Trump Jr.’s video was posted to Twitter. This allowed the video to stay on its website. Each company attached labels to the videos to point out accurate information about voting.
Facebook introduced a new policy to combat militarized language, polling locations, and other inappropriate content the following month. However, the policy was not retroactive, so Trump Jr.’s video could remain on Facebook.
Officials at Facebook want to emphasize that misinformation isn’t just a problem on Facebook. Daily Reuters reported last month that a DNC team originally focused on online misinformation has expanded to monitor and respond to messages from pro-Trump talk radio and cable networks.
Because of its central role in American discourse, Democrats remain focused on Facebook. Many are now concerned that misinformation on Facebook could hinder their efforts next year in the midterms.
A top Biden campaign aide, who was involved in these issues, stated that “some of the more systemic concerns we have really haven’t been addressed at all.” “If America’s primary news source spews nonsense to people based on whether it is more likely to go viral or read, that can have profound consequences for the political system.”
Concerns about misinformation in 2020 were so alarming to the Biden campaign, an ex-aide to the Biden campaign said.
The aide stated that it was a frustrating series of conversations. “We sent several letters, complaints, and private emails to Facebook, but they did not respond.” Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook, stated that the company has done more than any other internet company in combating harmful content.
After Election Day, the complaints of Democrats to Facebook continued.
Emails show that a DNC official flagged a series of Facebook posts inciting violence from a Facebook forum dedicated to the “Stop the Steal” movement. This election disinformation campaign became a rallying cry during the January 6 rebellion.
Another DNC official informed Facebook staff at the same time that a Stop the Steal group appeared to have been moderated by a member of the militia group the Three Percenters.
The “Three Percenters”, which included members of the group, took part in the Capitol Insurrection. Some have been charged with conspiracy according to the Justice Department.
Facebook claims it has removed the profile of the individual. Daily Reuters has yet to confirm if the individual was part of the Three Percenters, or if they took part in the insurrection.
Facebook closed down, a Stop the Steal group that had hundreds of thousands of members, on November 5, two days following the election. Facebook banned Stop the Steal content only after the insurrection. However, there were still groups and pages dedicated.
While Facebook did remove content that was flagged by Democrats as violating its rules and reviewed it, Timothy Durigan (a DNC official) told daily Reuters that he felt his warnings were not being heard.
Durigan stated that Facebook was the “ground zero” for the Big Lie, and the Capitol Insurrection. “Facebook allowed election misinformation to be put in front of millions of Americans. It also systematically relaxed its rules regarding the leader of the insurrection, Donald Trump, and provided an organizing forum for insurrectionists.”
Durigan said that the DNC had repeatedly warned Facebook that inaction would lead to violence and undermine American democracy. These warnings were ignored.
Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook, disagreed with the claim that Facebook did not do enough to combat misinformation or content that promotes political violence.
It’s not only better for the people who use our services, but it’s also better business for us. Stone stated that our algorithms are designed to reduce clickbait and sensationalist material, which makes people turn away. It’s why we have done more than any other internet company in combating harmful content. We also limited content that attempted to legitimize the outcome, both before and afterward on January 6. We took down dozens of militarized social movement pages, groups, and accounts, removed the #StopTheSteal group, labeled candidate posts that attempted to pre-declare victory, and suspended President Trump for at least 2 years.
However, some senior Democrats feel that Facebook is not doing enough.
They make cosmetic changes, but that is not enough to indicate they take things seriously. Jesse Lehrich, the co-founder of Accountable Tech (an outside political organization that presses social media giants into making structural changes), said that they don’t care. “I do not expect that they will make any meaningful changes to stop another catastrophe.”
Lehrich said that it was difficult to overstate the extent to which Democratic sentiment towards Facebook has devolved from mid-2019 to middle-2020.
He stated that the entire Democratic Party came to see Facebook as a right-wing propaganda tool — Fox News with greater reach and lower standards.
While Biden won the presidential election, Democrats are growing increasingly concerned about the influence of misinformation on Facebook.
The Biden campaign was in a unique position to work with Facebook in some ways. The campaign had hundreds upon thousands of staff members and millions to spend on social platforms. This allowed them to have more direct contact with Facebook than smaller campaigns such as those for the House, Senate, and some gubernatorial elections.
Priorities USA, a Democratic super-PAC, was the primary PAC supporting the Biden campaign in 2020. Priorities USA also complained to Facebook regularly about the platform’s ad policy. They used both private and public pressure to force the social media giant into addressing their concerns. Facebook defended its controversial policy of not fact-checking ads from politicians throughout the election campaign. They stated that they shouldn’t be considered arbitrators of truth about statements made by politicians.
Maddie Kriger, integrated media director at super PAC, said, “I wish that you could run a campaign for political advertising without Facebook,” “This is where people are, particularly persuadable voters. It is the place where many Americans get their information and create communities.
Kriger stated that she discovered through this process that Facebook’s response was to many complaints with the following: “Whatever our system does is right, therefore you must have something wrong.”