WASHINGTON (AP) — Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is quietly scaling back some of the safeguards designed to combat voter misinformation and foreign interference in U.S. elections as the midterm elections near. november.
It’s a clear departure from the social media giant’s multimillion-dollar efforts to improve the accuracy of US election messaging and win back the trust of lawmakers and the public, following widespread outrage at the company over news that it had exploited people’s data and allowed falsehoods to abound on its website during the 2016 campaign.
The change is raising alarm about Meta’s priorities and how some could exploit the world’s most popular social networks to spread lies, launch fake accounts and fuel extremism.
“They’re not talking about it,” said former Facebook chief policy officer Katie Harbath, now CEO of the tech and policy firm Anchor Change. “At best, they are still doing a lot behind the scenes. At worst, they’ve regressed and we don’t know how that’s going to play out on platforms during the midterms.”
Since last year, Meta has shut down an examination of how falsehoods are amplified in political ads on Facebook by indefinitely banning researchers from its website.
CrowdTangle, the company’s tool for hundreds of newsrooms and researchers to identify popular messages and disinformation on Facebook and Instagram, has been down for a few days.
Public communications about the company’s response to electoral disinformation have been muted. Between 2018 and 2020, the company released more than 30 statements detailing how it would curb election misinformation in the United States, prevent foreign adversaries from placing ads or messages about voting, and reduce hate speech.
Top executives held question-and-answer sessions with journalists about the company’s new policies. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote messages on Facebook in which he promised to eliminate misinformation to voters and published op-eds in which he called for more regulations to combat foreign interference in elections via social media.
However, Meta has only released a one-page document this year outlining its plans for the November elections, despite clear potential threats to the vote remaining. Various Republican candidates are promoting falsehoods about the US election on social media. In addition, Russia and China continue to wage online propaganda campaigns aimed at further dividing voters in the United States.
Meta says that the elections remain a priority and that the policies developed in previous years on electoral disinformation and foreign interference are now integrated into the company’s operations.
The company has continued many initiatives it developed to limit election misinformation, such as a fact-checking program that began in 2016 that enlists the help of media outlets to investigate the veracity of popular falsehoods spread on Facebook or Instagram. The Associated Press is part of Meta’s fact-checking program.
This month, Meta also launched a new feature for political ads that allows citizens to search for details about how advertisers target people based on their interests on Facebook and Instagram.
However, Meta has stifled other efforts to identify electoral misinformation circulating on its sites.
Stopped making improvements to CrowdTangle, a website it offered to newsrooms around the world that provides insights into trending social media posts. Journalists, fact-checkers and researchers used the website to analyze Facebook content, including tracking down popular but misinformation and who is responsible for it.
Now that tool is “dying,” former CrowdTangle executive director Brandon Silverman, who left Meta last year, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in the spring.
Silverman told The Associated Press that CrowdTangle had been working on updates that would make it easier to find the text of internet memes, which can often be used to spread half-truths and escape the scrutiny of fact-checkers, for example. .
“There’s really no shortage of ways to organize this data so that it’s useful to many different parts of the fact-checking community, newsrooms, and civil society in general,” Silverman lamented.
Meanwhile, the possibility of regulation in the United States has ceased to loom over the company, as lawmakers fail to reach a consensus on what oversight the billion-dollar company should be subject to.
Associated Press technology reporter Barbara Ortutay contributed to this report