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Features & Columns

Facebook Staff Says Policies Have Been Altered to Accommodate Trump Since 2015

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Facebook Staff Says Policies Have Been Altered to Accommodate Trump Since 2015

2020-06-29 21:11:19

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Mark Zuckerberg (Image source: Presidência do México via Wikimedia Commons)

 

With questions and condemnation all over for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refusing to pull down Donald Trump's incendiary posts and campaign ads, former and current staff have said Zuckerberg allowed the company's policies to be altered to accommodate the president, as far back as 2015 when he was still a candidate.

Trump posted this past May about sending the military to the Minnesota protests and used violent language, indicating that if there were any looting, the military would be shooting.

Shortly after his post, the president called Zuckerberg, who told him that his post put Facebook in a difficult position, according to people familiar with the discussions. Twitter hid the message because of the violence, so this put pressure on Facebook to do the same.

Facebook's Washington executives, though, didn't believe it violated policies that allow leaders to post government use of force if the intention is to warn the public. But it was close. The White House had already been contacted, asking them to change the wording or simply delete it. When Trump posted again, he said his comments were meant as a warning. Zuckerberg then explained why the first post was allowed to stay up.

These policies, though, have changed throughout Trump's time in politics. While the social network is against false and misleading news, an exception is given to politicians who lie. The newsfeed algorithm was tweaked after accusations it was biased against conservative publishers, according to current and former employees and unreported documents that The Washington Post obtained.

This information showed this started in 2015 when Trump posted a video that called for a Muslim ban. Employees were upset and said it was hate speech and that it violated the company's policies. Even Zuckerberg admitted to being personally disgusted by it and wanted it removed.

A document offered four options for this post: removing it for hate speech, making a one-time exception for it, creating an exemption for politicians, and just allowing all hate speech. Facebook executives eventually did not remove it,  talking Zuckerberg out of his position, and this started the trend of making exceptions for politicians' posts, specifically Trump.

Zuckerberg wanted to write a post that took Trump to task for wanting to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, but he was talked out of it with the fear it could look like he was choosing sides.

It became more of a clash as Trump got closer to becoming the 2016 Republican nominee. The company feared him, and it pushed them toward being more accommodating to conservative users.

In October 2016, a formal newsworthiness policy was announced that would allow such content. It was not mentioned that these discussions started with the Trump Muslim ban post. But also adding into this policy was a photo of a naked girl in Vietnam running away from a napalm attack. It was decided the nudity would be allowed in this instance for "newsworthiness."

Zuckerberg has been criticized along the way for allowing Trump posts and fell out of favor for selling user information. In May 2019 he was questioned for not removing a doctored video that made it appear as if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was drunk.

In September 2019, after a meeting, Facebook decided aside from speech that causes violence or real-world harm, it would allow politicians to express themselves. Fact-checkers would not evaluate the posts. Some employees were upset, with 250 of them signing a petition that disagreed with the decision.

There were more questions after Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan had a private dinner with Trump at the White House last fall in an effort for Facebook's leader to cultivate Washington relationships.

Trump continued to get bolder. He posted about hydroxychloroquine and claimed Antifa was behind the looting, fires, and other violence at the George Floyd protests. He posted about mail-in ballots, leading to Twitter fact-checking him. He announced an executive order a few days later that could hurt social media companies. It seemed he was punishing Twitter.

Next came the tweet about the looting and shooting. While Twitter and other social media companies pulled away from Trump, Facebook bargained with the White House, something that has been confirmed by Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Facebook finally removed a large group of Trump campaign ads that bore a Nazi symbol that marked political prisoners. While at first an internal assessment found there was no policy violation, later executives argued that not removing the posts would be perceived as going too easy on Trump.

Those policies that have been tweaked to suit Trump, other politicians, and conservative users, however, are now causing advertisers to boycott. Last week Hershey, Verizon, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and others pulled advertising.

Additionally, employees weren't very happy either, with more than 5,000 denouncing the decision to leave Trump's "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" post up.

"The value of being in favor with people in power outweighs almost every other concern for Facebook," said David Thiel, a former security engineer who resigned from Facebook in March after a "dehumanizing speech by Brazil's president.

"Though [Facebook] has cracked down on misinformation, the most problematic influencers are politicians," said Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft, an organization to fight misinformation that is in a partnership with Facebook. "You can do all the fact-checking in the world, but these influencers have a disproportionate impact."

She added that Trump presented a different challenge. "Until then, no one would have considered a president who would have said those things," she said.

Starbucks said on Sunday that it's pausing its advertising as well. But before that, Zuckerberg announced new policies on Friday that are focused on better policing of content. The policy that allowed "newsworthy" content is being changed. Posts by politicians that incite violence and suppress voting will be removed.

"There are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies that I'm announcing today," he said.

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