Technology · June 23, 2022

As the midterms unfold, Mark Zuckerberg is shifting focus away from the elections

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made securing the 2020 US election a top priority. He met regularly with an election team that included more than 300 people from across his company to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights activists for advice on safeguarding voter rights.

Facebook’s core election team, renamed Meta last year, has since been disbanded. Around 60 people are now mainly focused on elections, while others split their time into other projects. You’re meeting with another executive, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not spoken to civil rights groups recently, although some have asked him to pay more attention to the November midterm elections.

Securing elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s primary concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier for growth, said those who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The shift in emphasis at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching ramifications as confidence in the US electoral system hits a brittle point. The Jan. 6 riot hearings in the Capitol highlighted just how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November under the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was betrayed in the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.

False voting information is still widespread on the internet. This month, “2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was shared widely on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to a New York Times analysis. In posts about the film, commentators said they expected voter fraud this year and warned against the use of postal and electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies have also somewhat reduced their focus on elections. Twitter, which stopped flagging and removing voting misinformation in March 2021, was busy with its $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr Musk has suggested that he would like fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.

“Companies should step up their efforts to prepare to protect the integrity of elections over the next few years, not back down,” said Katie Harbath, chief executive of consultancy Anchor Change, which previously led election policy at Meta. “Many problems remain, including candidates pushing that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and we don’t know how they are dealing with it.”

Meta, which worked with Twitter to ban Mr Trump from its platforms following the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riots, has worked over the years to limit political untruths on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a spokesman for Meta, said the company has “taken a comprehensive approach to how elections are conducted on our platforms, since before the 2020 US election and throughout the dozens of global elections since then.”

Mr Reynolds denied that 60 people were focused on the integrity of the elections. He said Meta has hundreds of people on more than 40 teams focused on campaign work. With each election, he said, the company “built teams and technologies and developed partnerships to disrupt campaigns of manipulation, limit the spread of misinformation and maintain industry-leading transparency around political ads and pages.”

Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter spokesman, said the company “continues our efforts to protect the integrity of the election talks and to keep the public informed of our approach.” For the midterms, Twitter flagged the accounts of political candidates and provided info boxes for voting in local elections.

How Meta and Twitter handle elections has implications beyond the United States, given the global nature of their platforms. In Brazil, where parliamentary elections will be held in October, President Jair Bolsonaro recently expressed doubts about the country’s electoral process. Elections will also be held in Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia in October.

“People in the US almost certainly get the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to integrity on any platform, especially in US elections,” said Sahar Massachi, executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and a former Facebook contributor. “And as bad as it is here, think how much worse it is anywhere else.”

Facebook’s role in potentially distorting elections became clear after 2016, when Russian activists used the site to disseminate 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 on my mind right now is to make sure nobody is interfering in the various 2018 elections around the world,” he said.

The social network has since become efficient at shutting down foreign efforts to spread disinformation in the United States, election experts said. But Facebook and Instagram still struggle with conspiracy theories and other political lies on their pages, they said.

In November 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a dinner for civil rights activists at his home and held phone and Zoom conference calls with them, in which he pledged to make election integrity a priority.

He also met regularly with an election team. More than 300 employees from different product and development teams were asked to develop new systems to detect and remove misinformation. Facebook also took aggressive action to eliminate toxic content and banned QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.

Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay polling station rental fees, provide personal protective equipment and other administrative costs.

In the week leading up to the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political advertising to curb the spread of untruths.

But while there have been successes – the company keeping foreign election interference away from the platform – it has had trouble dealing with Mr Trump using his Facebook account to reinforce false claims of voter fraud. After the Jan. 6 riot, Facebook banned Mr. Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January 2023.

Last year, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing the company of removing voting 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 has restructured and devoted more resources to the development of the online world.

Meta has also retooled its election team. Now the number of staff whose job it is to focus solely on elections is about 60, up from over 300 in 2020, the staff said. Hundreds of others attend and are part of meetings about elections cross-functional teams where they work on other issues. Departments developing virtual reality software, a key component of the metaverse, have expanded.

Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those focused on election security, the four staffers said, although he receives their reports. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s President of Global Affairs.

Several civil rights groups said they noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg is no longer involved in discussions with them as he used to be, nor are other top Meta executives, they said.

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

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, another civil rights group, said Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg asked his organization for recommendations in 2020 to thwart election misinformation. Their suggestions have been largely ignored, he said, and he hasn’t communicated with either executive in more than a year. He is now interacting with Meta’s Vice President of Civil Rights, Roy Austin.

Meta said Mr. Austin meets with civil rights activists every quarter, adding that it is the only major social media company with a civil rights executive.

In May, 130 civil rights organizations, progressive think tanks and public advocacy groups wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They urged them to delete posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of misinformation ahead of the midterm elections.

Yosef Getachew, director of nonprofit public advocacy group Common Cause, whose group investigated social media misinformation about the 2020 election, said the companies had not responded.

“The big lie is at the heart of the midterm elections as so many candidates are using them to preemptively state that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, referencing recent tweets from politicians Michigan and Arizona who incorrectly said that dead people cast votes for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop fighting the big lie.”