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Facebook’s own employees blasted the social network’s policies that allow politicians to make false claims in ads in an open letter, marking a rare public display of employee resistance at the embattled social network.
More than 250 employees signed the letter addressed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, calling the policies “a threat to what [Facebook] stands for,” according to the New York Times’s Mike Isaac. The goal of the letter, they wrote, is to ensure Facebook's top brass is aware that a portion of the company’s 40,000 employees don’t agree with Facebook’s policies. The signatories called on the company to hold politicians' ads to the same standards as other ads on its platform and made other recommendations for Facebook aimed at transparency.
“We strongly object to this policy as it stands,” the employees wrote in the letter, which was circulated on Facebook’s internal communications network, over the past two weeks. “It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”
The letter could signal a shift at Facebook, where rank-and-file employees have been less active than their counterparts at Google and Amazon in publicly challenging top management’s policy decisions with open missives and protests. Facebook is known for its strong, mission-focused corporate culture, and until now, employee dissatisfaction has rarely spilled into public view.
“This is a big change culturally at Facebook, and I hope that it is the beginning of a new awareness among employees about the company’s responsibilities relative to democracy, public health and privacy,” Roger McNamee, a Facebook investor turned critic who recently wrote the book “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” told me.
He noted there was no open letter from employees publicized during other moments of turmoil at the company, like when the United Nations slammed the company’s role in spreading hate that facilitated violence in Myanmar, or after the Christchurch, New Zealand, gunman used the company’s Live feature to broadcast a massacre that claimed the lives of more than 50 people.
“It’s really significant that employees are sticking their head out and making an issue out of this,” he said. “It’s actually a fantastic issue for them to pick on because it is so demonstrably important to the health of the country’s democracy that platforms like Facebook and Google do not distort the outcome of elections.”
Technology companies are still grappling with how to respond to a new wave of employee activism that has flourished in the industry in recent years -- and at times influenced key policy changes at the companies. Google dropped an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon last year following criticism from employees who did not want to build technology for warfare. Amazon overhauled its climate-focused policies and promised to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 after employees planned a walkout.
Facebook said in a statement that it welcomes employees' feedback. “Facebook’s culture is built on openness so we appreciate our employees voicing their thoughts on this important topic,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. “We remain committed to not censoring political speech, and will continue exploring additional steps we can take to bring increased transparency to political ads.”
The social network has fiercely defended its position on political ads in recent weeks as Democrats decry the platform’s policies. Presidential candidates such as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have called out the company’s policies, and it emerged as a key theme during Democrats’ questioning of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill last week. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who wrote a letter criticizing the policy, expressed support for the employees in a tweet:
From inside Facebook, speaking truth to power&insisting that untruths by politicians be checked—this cry for accountability mirrors my letter&others. Being a politician shouldn’t be a license to lie—especially to spread hatred. If Facebook employees get it so should Zuckerberg. https://t.co/Hv0uMGactz pic.twitter.com/SxQHKkdyUl— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) October 28, 2019
Here are the recommendations the employees made, which they said are focused on politcal ads and not organic postings.
1. Treat political ads the same as other ads.
The employees argued that misinformation sponsored by politicians has “an outsized detrimental impact on our community.” They called on Facebook not to accept money for political ads unless they meet the company’s other advertising standards. Currently, ads for other products can be submitted to Facebook's fact-checking partners for vetting.
2. Design ads so it’s easier to distinguish them from organic posts.
Right now, it’s hard for people to see the difference, the employees said. They called on the company to “apply a stronger design treatment to political ads that makes it easier for people to establish context.”
3. Limit targeting for political ads, treating those ads in the same way as the company approaches ads for things like credit, housing and education.
The employees displayed sophisticated knowledge of how political campaigns use Facebook’s advanced targeting tools to refine where their ads appear. “The risk with allowing this is that it’s hard for people in the electorate to participate in the 'public scrutiny' that we’re saying comes along with political speech,” the employees wrote. “These ads are often so micro-targeted that the conversations on our platforms are much more siloed than on other platforms.” The employees are calling on Facebook to treat political ads like ones in other industries where there's a history of discrimination. Facebook doesn't allow housing and credit ads to be targeted by Zip code, gender and age.
4. Comply with local election silence period rules — and consider a self-imposed quiet period for elections around the world.
Many countries around the world where Facebook operates have rules that prohibit candidates from actively campaigning to allow people to reflect before casting their votes. "Explore a self-imposed election silence for all elections around the world to act in good faith and as good citizens," they wrote.
5. Restrict the amount an individual politician can spend on ads.
The employees challenged Zuckerberg's argument that Facebook's political ads policy allows more people to be heard. "However, high-profile politicians can out-spend new voices and drown out the competition," they wrote. "To solve for this, if you have a PAC and a politician both running ads, there would be a limit that would apply to both together, rather than to each advertiser individually."
6. Update disclaimers on political ads.
The letter calls Facebook to make it clearer to consumers and advertisers that political ads do not go through the same fact-checking as other ads on Facebook. The employees say that misinformation should no longer be listed under "prohibited content" if Facebook won't submit politicians' ads to third-party fact checkers. They think it should be moved to the "restricted content" section of the company's policies to make it clearer the company has a special exemption for politicians.
"We want to have this conversation in an open dialog because we want to see actual change," the employees wrote. "We are proud of the work that the integrity teams have done, and we don’t want to see that undermined by policy. Over the coming months, we’ll continue this conversation, and we look forward to working towards solutions together."
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: San Francisco activist Adriel Hampton registered as a candidate for the 2022 California gubernatorial race to test Facebook's policy to not fact-check ads by politicians, CNN's Donie O'Sullivan reports. Because Facebook does not fact-check ads from individuals running a registered political campaign, Hampton plans to use his candidacy to run false ads about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives to protest the policy.
The stunt is the latest challenge to Facebook's advertising policy, which critics claim gives politicians including the president free rein to spread misinformation. Facebook previously removed ads from Hampton's PAC "The Really Online Lefty League" that falsely claimed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) supported the Green New Deal. While PACs are not protected from fact-checking, government-registered political campaigns – which Hampton now has – are.
“It is actually easy to file to run for office and basically 100 people could do what I just did,” Hampton told Donie. Hampton says he plans to fundraise for the campaign to buy ads.
Hampton said on Twitter that Facebook employess have reached out about donating to the campaign.
Facebook employees have started to reach out about contributing to my campaign. We're gonna do it big, we're gonna win and make sure Trump and the GOP can't steal another election.— Adriel Hampton, #CAGov candidate 🦇 (@adrielhampton) October 29, 2019
It's unclear how Facebook intends to combat faux campaigns such as Hampton’s.
“If we start to see a lot of people trying to circumvent the intent, then we'll figure out how to evolve that in order to make sure that this is doing what we intend,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters in a call last week. Facebook didn't have an immediate comment for CNN about the campaign.
NIBBLES: Google's new government affairs manager Miles Taylor frequently assisted then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen with talking points about the agency's family separation policy, according to emails obtained through a public records request by BuzzFeed News's Ryan Mac and Jason Leopold. The records challenge Google's top lobbyist Karan Bhatia's claims to employees that Taylor, who served as Nielsen's chief of staff, had no involvement in the policy.
One email shows that Taylor helped Nielsen draft written testimony ahead of a Senate hearing where Nielsen falsely claimed the administration was not separating families at the border. Taylor was also scheduled for weekly calls in June 2018 to “discuss Border Security and Immigration Enforcement,” according to emails.
Former DHS officials told BuzzFeed that while Taylor did mainly focus on cybersecurity and terrorism as Bhatia said during a recent all-hands meeting covered by my colleague Greg Bensinger, his role as deputy chief of staff would have involved him in most meetings, including those about immigration enforcement. Taylor was part of Nielsen's “tight inner camp,” one former Homeland Security official told BuzzFeed.
“The idea that you could disassociate from a policy that consumed the entire department while you were deputy chief of staff is ridiculous,” the official told BuzzFeed.
Google declined to comment to BuzzFeed and Taylor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
BYTES: Katie Hill (D-Calif.) said yesterday she's going to become an advocate for victims of "revenge porn" after announcing her resignation from Congress amid an ethics probe, my colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee writes.
A conservative website and a British website published nude photos of Hill, who is accused of violating congressional ethics rules by having a relationship with an office aide.
She apologized in a Monday message for her “imperfections” and committed to “fight to ensure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced” in connection with the release of the photos.
“Some people call this electronic assault, digital exploitation. Others call it revenge porn. As a victim of it, I call it one of the worst things we can do to our sisters and our daughters,” Hill said in the video.
“I will not allow my experience to scare off other young women or girls from running for office," she added. "For the sake of all of us we cannot let that happen.”
In her resignation announcement over the weekend, Hill said she was exploring legal actions to address the pictures and that “as long as I am in Congress, we’ll live fearful of what might come next and how much it will hurt.”
-- Democrats are criticizing Facebook for keeping them in the dark about a Russia-backed disinformation campaign that targeted several 2020 presidential candidates, my colleagues Isaac Stanley-Becker, Ellen Nakashima and Tony Romm report. They say the incident highlights how both the White House and Facebook are failing to address rising threats from foreign actors in the 2020 elections.
“Democrats have to band together and apply pressure on Facebook, but in the end we need to plan for worst-case scenarios where we are fighting mass disinformation campaigns on our own,” one digital director for a Democratic presidential campaign told my colleagues. Another official argued that Facebook failed to “equip candidates with information to confront this threat yet again.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Facebook's failure to disclose to Democratic campaigns they had been targeted before making a public announcement last week “extraordinarily disturbing.”
Democrats also expressed concerns that President Trump’s dismissive attitudes toward Russian interference could stymie the work of intelligence agencies tasked with protecting the election. Some seized on the White House's lack of a public strategy to deal with escalating disinformation campaigns from Russia, China and Iran. A senior administration official told my colleagues there is a strategy, but that it is classified.
Facebook pointed my colleagues to an earlier statement saying it had “shared information with industry partners, policy makers and law enforcement.”
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