Facebook’s interactions with lawmakers were formerly mostly uncontroversial.
But everything changed with the 2016 US elections.
Early in the campaign, then-candidate for president Donald Trump challenged the boundaries of Facebook’s policies against hate speech at the same time as the corporation turned into a platform for foreign actors to abuse politics.
Dealing with Trump’s 2015 Facebook post calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US was Facebook’s first test. Although there was considerable internal debate about whether Trump’s remarks broke Facebook’s policies against religious hate speech, the company ultimately chose to leave the post up. Most Facebook employees have never before had to deal with the idea that a political candidate for the highest office can incite division using their platform. That all changed when it happened.
What happens when the front-runner for president attacks [one of] the largest religions in the world on social media? Crystal Patterson, a former Facebook employee and Democratic lobbyist, told us.
Facebook also had to worry about global opponents in addition to domestic lawmakers. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s initial post-election remarks dismissing a “pretty crazy idea” that fake news on the platform could influence elections, it quickly became evident that propaganda from Russian Facebook accounts had reached millions of American voters. This led to an unprecedented backlash that forced the company to face its responsibility in influencing global politics.
Over time, Zuckerberg would embrace Facebook’s function as “The Fifth Estate,” a force as influential in setting the public agenda as the government and the media, while also making an effort to downplay the company’s influence over what constitutes appropriate political expression.
Facebook established the Oversight Board, a group akin to the Supreme Court it set up to weigh in on sensitive content choices, including how to handle Trump’s account, to unload the burden of political duty moving forward. But because the board is young, we’re still figuring out how much influence it really has on Facebook. How much authority still rests with Facebook to set the rules for its own platform? Can the board go far enough to alter the recommendation algorithms that power the social media platform’s core functionality?
In the fourth episode of Land of the Giants, a narrative audio series about the most significant internet corporations of our time produced by Vox Media Podcast Network, we examine these concerns about Facebook’s function in policing political discourse. With the help of interviews with current and past executives, Recode and The Verge have collaborated this season to recount the tale of Facebook’s transformation into Meta over the course of seven episodes.