By Donie O’Sullivan and Dan Merica, CNN
People working with Joe Biden’s presidential campaign have been repeatedly warned Facebook about the violent campaign-related rhetoric on its platform during the heat of the 2020 election, but a series of email exchanges reveal how the social media giant has at times dismissed them.
Email cache obtained by CNN shows how worried Democrats have become disinformation on Facebook as Election Day approached – and how frustrated they were with Facebook’s response. Additionally, those concerns increased on January 6 when platforms like Facebook and others were used to plan the violent insurgency on the United States Capitol.
And because some of those same top Biden agents have little belief that the tech giant has changed in the past six months, fears are growing about the role Facebook’s disinformation could play midway through 2022 and beyond. . Some of the most pressing concerns stemmed from how former President Donald Trump and his family were using the platform.
In September, a Team Trump Facebook account posted a video of Donald Trump Jr. baseless claiming Democrats planned to use “millions of fraudulent ballots” to cheat in elections and called on “able-bodied” people to join an election security “army” for his father.
A senior Biden campaign official emailed Facebook on September 22: “The fact that this video is still on your platform – and being used to recruit some sort of, and I quote, ‘an army for Trump’s election security efforts’ – is staggering. It is impossible to reconcile this with any of the policies regarding voting and voter suppression that Facebook has posted over the past 3 years and privately pointed out to us in several dozen conversations.
After a Facebook official responded by explaining that the video did not violate site policies that would justify its removal, the Biden official responded with exasperation.
“The Trump campaign got the message that they could put videos on your platform saying that millions of fraudulent votes will be used to steal the election. And the solution to that is for “able-bodied people” to enlist in an “army”. Thus, their cries of fraud multiply and their calls to “enlist” multiply. Good grace, ”the Biden manager wrote. “I find it hard to believe this is the precedent you intend to set.”
They added, “We implore you to approach this problem with seriousness and a sense of mission. We have found this to be lacking so far. If the effort and mental gymnastics undertaken to keep this position on your platform were instead devoted to fulfilling your acknowledged responsibility to democracy, we might see progress. “
Trump Jr.’s video was also posted on Twitter, which also kept the video on his site. Both companies have affixed labels to the videos with specific information about the vote.
The next month, Facebook introduced a new policy against militarized language and polling places, but the policy did not apply in retrospect, meaning the Trump Jr. video could remain on the platform.
Facebook officials are keen to stress that the scourge of disinformation is not just a problem on Facebook. CNN reported last month how a DNC team that focused on online disinformation is evolving to also monitor and help respond to messages from burgeoning pro-Trump cable networks and talk radio.
However, Democrats remain particularly focused on Facebook because of the central role it plays in American discourse. Some now fear that misinformation on the platform is hampering their efforts midway through next year.
“Some of the more systemic concerns that we have really haven’t been addressed at all,” said a former Biden campaign aide who has worked on these issues. “If the main source of information in America is the one that spits nonsense at people simply based on the fact that this nonsense is more likely to be read or go viral, it has profound effects on the entire world. Political system.”
“The most frustrating series of conversations”
In 2020, concerns about disinformation were so serious to the Biden campaign that the presidential candidate himself was kept abreast of some of the misinformation on the site, a former Biden campaign aide said.
“It was the most frustrating series of conversations,” the aide said. “We went to Facebook with a series of letters, public complaints, private emails and all along, they basically didn’t do anything.” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the company has done more than any other internet company to tackle harmful content.
Democrats’ complaints to Facebook continued after election day.
In the days immediately following the election, emails show a DNC official reporting a series of Facebook posts allegedly inciting violence and promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory from a dedicated Facebook forum to the “Stop the Steal” movement – an election disinformation campaign that has become a rallying cry for the January 6 insurgency.
Around the same time, another DNC official pointed out to Facebook staff that a “Stop the Steal” group on their platform appeared to be moderated by a potential member of the Three Percenters militia.
Members of the “Three Percent” then took part in the Capitol uprising and some were accused of conspiracy, according to the Ministry of Justice.
Facebook says it deleted the individual’s profile. CNN has not confirmed whether the person was a member of the Three Percent or participated in the insurgency.
On November 5, two days after the election, Facebook closed a large Stop the Steal group that had gathered hundreds of thousands of members. But groups and pages dedicated to the movement continued to appear and Facebook only banned all Stop the Steal content. after the insurrection.
Although Facebook has reviewed and removed some content reported by Democrats for breaking its rules, Timothy Durigan, a DNC official who reported posts to Facebook, told CNN he felt his warnings fell within. deaf ear.
“Facebook is the zero point for the Big Lie and the Capitol uprising,” Durigan said. “Facebook chose to put election disinformation in front of millions of Americans, systematically relaxed its rules for insurgency leader Donald Trump, and provided an organizing platform for the insurgents.”
Durigan added, “The DNC has repeatedly warned Facebook that its inaction will undermine American democracy and fuel violence. These warnings have gone unheeded.
Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, disputed the claim that the platform has done little to tackle disinformation and content promoting political violence.
“Creating a positive environment for our services is not only better for people, it’s also better for our business. That’s why we’ve designed our algorithms to limit clickbait and sensationalistic content, which turns people off, ”Stone said. “It’s also why we did more than any other internet company to tackle harmful content, including limiting content that sought to delegitimize the election result, both before and after January 6. We’ve banned hundreds of militarized social movements, removed tens of thousands of QAnon pages, groups and accounts from our apps, removed the original #StopTheSteal group, tagged posts from candidates seeking to prematurely declare victory, and suspended former President Trump from our platform for at least two years.
But some senior Democrats say Facebook is just not doing enough.
“They make cosmetic adjustments, whatever they think is enough to signal that they are taking things seriously. But they don’t really care, ”said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, a foreign political organization that lobbies social media giants to make structural changes. “I have no expectation that they will make any meaningful changes to prevent another disaster.”
Lehrich added that it was “hard to overstate how much Democratic sentiment towards Facebook has transferred even from mid-2019 to mid-2020”.
“The entire Democratic Party has come to view Facebook as a right-wing propaganda machine – Fox News with more reach and lower standards,” he said.
Implications beyond 2020
As Biden won the presidential election, Democrats are increasingly concerned that the use of disinformation on Facebook and other social media sites will become more influential in the years to come.
In some ways, the Biden campaign was better positioned to work with Facebook than many others. Because the campaign had hundreds of people on staff and millions to spend on social media platforms, they were able to gain more direct contact with Facebook, which would not be the case for smaller campaigns like those of the House, the Senate and even some governors. campaigns.
Democratic super PACs like Priorities USA, the main super PAC for the Biden campaign in the 2020 election, have also regularly complained to Facebook about their advertising policies on the platform, using both public and private pressure to bring about the social media giant to solve their problems. Throughout the election campaign, Facebook has maintained its controversial policy of not verifying advertisements from politicians, declaring that they should not be the arbiter of truth when it comes to statements by politicians.
“I wish you could run a political advertising campaign without using Facebook, but you just can’t,” said Maddie Kriger, super PAC’s integrated media director. “This is where the people are, especially the convincing voters. … This is where a lot of people in the United States get their information and build communities.
Throughout this process, Kriger said he learned that Facebook’s response to complaints was often to say “whatever our system is doing is right, so you have to do something wrong.”
And when asked if Democrats should be hopeful things will change in time for the 2022 midterms, Kriger was blunt: “None at all.”