As midterms approach, Meta CEO shifts focus away from elections

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has made securing the 2020 US election a top priority. He met regularly with a constituency group of more than 300 from across his company to prevent the spread of disinformation on the social media platform. He turned to civil rights leaders for advice on protecting voter rights.

Facebook’s core constituency, which was renamed Meta last year, has since disbanded. Approximately 60 people are currently focused mainly on elections, while the rest are busy with other projects. They are meeting with a different executive, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive hasn’t spoken to civil rights groups lately, even as some have asked him to pay more attention to the midterm elections in November.

Election defense is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s primary concern, four Meta employees familiar with the situation said. Instead, he’s focused on turning his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, people not authorized to speak publicly say.

The shift in focus at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could be far-reaching as faith in the US electoral system reaches a point of fragility. The January 6 Capitol riot hearing showed just how dangerous an election can be. And this November, dozens of political candidates are running under the false assumption that former President Donald J. Trump has been robbed of his candidacy in the 2020 election, and social media platforms continue to be a key way to reach American voters.

Election misinformation is still widespread on the Internet. This month, the movie 2000 Mules, which falsely claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, went viral on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 views, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In reports about the film, commentators said they expected electoral fraud this year and warned against the use of mail-in votes and electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies also digressed a bit from the election. Twitter, which stopped flagging and deleting election misinformation in March 2021, was busy selling to Elon Musk for $44 billion, three employees familiar with the situation said. Mr. Musk suggested that he needed fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.

“Companies need to step up their efforts to prepare to defend election integrity over the next few years, not back down,” said Cathy Harbat, chief executive of Anchor Change, a consulting firm who previously ran election politics at the Meta. “Many issues, including claims by candidates that the 2020 election was rigged, remain and we don’t know how they are dealing with them.”

Meta, which along with Twitter banned Mr. Trump from its platforms following the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riots, has been working for years to limit political lies on its sites. Tom Reynolds, spokesperson for Meta, said the company “has taken a holistic approach to how elections are handled on our platforms even before the 2020 US election and throughout dozens of global elections since.”

According to Mr. Reynolds, the Meta employs hundreds of people in more than 40 election teams. With each election, he said, the company “has built teams and technologies and developed partnerships to stop manipulation campaigns, limit the spread of disinformation, and maintain industry-leading transparency for political ads and pages.”

Trenton Kennedy, a spokesman for Twitter, said the company is continuing “our efforts to protect the integrity of the campaign conversation and educate the public about our approach.” For the interim deadlines, Twitter flagged accounts of political candidates and provided information blocks on how to vote in local elections.

How Meta and Twitter treat elections matters outside of the United States, given the global nature of their platforms. In Brazil, which will hold general elections in October, President Jair Bolsonaro recently expressed doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia will also hold elections in October.

“People in the US are almost certainly on Rolls-Royce when it comes to any kind of integrity on any platform, especially in US elections,” said Sahar Massachi, executive director of think tank Integrity Institute and a former Facebook employee. “So, no matter how bad it is here, think about how much worse it is everywhere.”

Facebook’s role in potentially distorting the election results became apparent after 2016, when Russian operatives used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the US presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.

“The most important thing that worries me right now is to make sure that no one is interfering in the various elections of 2018 around the world,” he said.

Since then, the social network has become effective in thwarting foreign attempts to spread misinformation in the United States, according to election experts. But Facebook and Instagram are still cracking down on conspiracy theories and other political lies on their sites, they say.

In November 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a dinner for civil rights leaders at his home, as well as phone calls and Zoom conferences with them, promising to put election integrity in the spotlight.

He also met regularly with the constituency. More than 300 employees from various product and engineering groups have been asked to create new systems to detect and remove disinformation. Facebook has also taken aggressive steps to eliminate toxic content by banning QAnon posts and conspiracy groups in October 2020.

Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund polling stations, pay rent for polling stations, provide personal protective equipment, and other administrative expenses.

A week before the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political ads to limit the spread of lies.

But while there have been successes — the company kept foreigners from interfering in elections through the platform — it has struggled with how to deal with Mr. Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false allegations of electoral fraud. Following the Jan. 6 riots, Facebook banned Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January 2023.

Last year, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistleblower, filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election security features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook prioritizes growth and engagement over security, she said.

In October, Mr. Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would focus on the metaverse. The company was restructured and more resources were dedicated to the development of the online world.

Meta has also retooled its campaign team. The number of employees whose job is solely to focus solely on elections is now around 60, according to staff, compared to more than 300 in 2020. Hundreds of others attend election meetings and are part of cross-functional teams where they work on other issues. The divisions that make virtual reality software, a key component of the metaverse, have expanded.

Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with election security officials, although he receives their reports, according to four employees. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of international affairs.

Several civil rights groups have said they have noticed a shift in the Meta’s priorities. According to them, neither Mr. Zuckerberg nor other top Meta executives participate in discussions with them, as they once did.

“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, who spoke with Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s COO, ahead of the 2020 election. “It seems to be out of sight, out of mind.” (Miss Sandberg announced she will be leaving Meta this fall.)

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, another advocacy group, said Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg have approached his organization for guidance in 2020 to prevent election misinformation. According to him, their suggestions were largely ignored, and he did not communicate with any of the leaders for more than a year. He is currently interacting with Meta Vice President for Civil Rights Roy Austin.

The Meta said Mr. Austin meets quarterly with civil rights leaders and added that it is the only major social network whose leader is responsible for civil rights.

In May, 130 human rights organizations, progressive think tanks and community groups wrote a letter Mr. Zuckerberg and executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They urged them to remove reports of lies that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and slow down the spread of misinformation about the election to interim deadlines.

Yosef Getachew, director of Common Cause, a nonprofit public advocacy organization whose group has been investigating misinformation about the 2020 election on social media, said the companies have not responded.

“The big lie is in the spotlight in the midterms and so many candidates are using it to announce early on that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets from politicians from Michigan as well as Arizona who falsely said that dead people vote for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop fighting the Big Lie.”

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