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Ron DeSantis launches investigation into Facebook for election interference over 'whitelisting'

The governor of Florida has ordered an inquiry into possible election interference by Facebook after a bombshell report found that the company had favored certain political figures.

Ron DeSantis, the Republican leader of the state, on Monday said that he was deeply troubled by a report earlier this month alleging favoritism from the social media giant.

'Floridians deserve to have faith that their elections are free from Big Tech interference, and corporations like Facebook deserve to be held accountable for actions that erode the legitimacy of our institutions,' said DeSantis.

He was angered by a September 13 report in The Wall Street Journal, which revealed that Facebook has a secret program in place that allows celebrities and powerful people to skirt the social network's own rules.

Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, on Monday launched an inquiry into Facebook's 'whitelisting' policies, which allowed some celebrities and political candidates to post freely, but curtailed others

The Silicon Valley giant's program, called 'XCheck' or 'cross check,' created a so-called 'whitelist' of celebrities who are immune from enforcement.

It was initially designed to protect the company from bad publicity in the event that it moderated content from some of the more high-profile users. Instead, critics say that it has shielded those same users from the rules that apply to the general public. 

The paper found that not all political candidates were on the XCheck list, which would give an advantage to those who were.

'It's no secret that Big Tech censors have long enforced their own rules inconsistently,' said DeSantis, explaining his decision to order an inquiry into the process. 

'If this new report is true, Facebook has violated Florida law to put its thumb on the scale of numerous state and local races. 

'Floridians deserve to know how much this corporate titan has influenced our elections. 

'That is why I am directing Secretary Lee to use all legal means to uncover violations of Florida's election laws. 

'The thought of Facebook clandestinely manipulating elections is an affront to the basic principles of our republic. We the people have the right to choose our representatives, whether or not Silicon Valley approves.' 

The list of protected celebrities and VIPs on the XCheck list include Brazilian soccer star Neymar; former President Donald Trump; his son, Donald Trump Jr; Senator Elizabeth Warren; model Sunnaya Nash; and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself.

DeSantis is pictured in November 2019 with Donald Trump, a close ally. Trump was banned from Facebook in the aftermath of the January 6 riot, although the 'whitelisting' policy had been around long before

In 2019, a live-streamed employee Q&A with Zuckerberg himself was suppressed after Facebook's algorithm mistakenly ruled that it violated the company's guidelines.

Movie stars, cable talk show hosts, academics, online personalities, and anyone who has a large following is protected by 'XCheck' on both Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram. As of last year, there were 5.8 million Facebook users covered by 'XCheck.'

The program has been in place for years - well before Trump was banned from the platform after he was accused of fomenting the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. 

The Journal relied on internal documents provided to it by employees of the company who say that the program shields celebrities from enforcement actions that are meted out against the platform's more than 3 billion other users.

If a VIP is believed to have violated the rules, their posts aren't removed immediately but are instead sent to a separate system staffed by better-trained employees who then further review the content.

Facebook has a secret program in place that allows celebrities and powerful people to skirt the social network's own rules, according to a bombshell report

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (left) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (right) are among the VIPs protected by the program, according to The Wall Street Journal

'XCheck' allowed international soccer star Neymar to post nude photos of a woman who had accused him of rape in 2019. The images were deleted by Facebook after a whole day, allowing them to be seen by Neymar's tens of millions of his followers.

While Facebook's standard procedure calls for deleting 'nonconsensual intimate imagery' as well as deleting the account.

But Neymar's nude photos of the woman were allowed to remain for a full day and his account was not deactivated.

An internal review by Facebook described the content as 'revenge porn' by Neymar.

'This included the video being reposted more than 6,000 times, bullying and harassment about her character,' the review found.

Neymar has denied the rape allegation and accused the woman of attempting to extort him. No charges have been filed.

The woman who made the allegation was charged with slander, extortion, and fraud by Brazilian authorities. The first two charges were dropped, and she was acquitted of the third.

'XCheck' allowed international soccer star Neymar (seen above in Brazil on September 9) to post nude photos of a woman who had accused him of rape in 2019. The images were deleted by Facebook after a whole day, allowing them to be seen by Neymar's tens of millions of his followers

Najila Trindade Mendes de Souza, accused Neymar of rape and sexual assault at a Paris hotel in 2019. Neymar, who was never charged, has denied the allegation

The Journal cites an internal review which acknowledges: 'We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly.'

'Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences,' according to the internal review cited by the Journal.

Mark Zuckerberg's livestream Q&A with his employees was banned by his OWN algorithm 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

In 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg held a livestreamed Q&A session with employees from his own companies.

But the session was mistakenly banned because it ran afoul of the platform's own algorithm, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The mistake was one of 18 instances from 2019 that were inadvertently flagged among those who are 'whitelisted' by the 'XCheck' program.

Four of those instances involved posts by then-President Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr.

The other incidents included posts by Senator Elizabeth Warren, fashion model Sunnaya Nash, and others.

A spokesperson for Facebook told the Journal that the program 'was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding.'

An internal review found that even when Facebook does take action against protected accounts, it does so belatedly.

Last year, 'XCheck' allowed posts that violated Facebook guidelines to be viewed at least 16.4 billion times before they were finally removed, according to a document obtained by the Journal.

The spokesperson, Andy Stone, said the company is in the process of phasing out its' whitelisting' policies as it relates to 'XCheck.'

'A lot of this internal material is outdated information stitched together to create a narrative that glosses over the most important point: Facebook itself identified the issues with cross check and has been working to address them,' he said.

The Journal interviewed dozens of current and former Facebook employees who say the company is aware of the flaws on its platform and the harm they cause but is either unwilling or unable to address them.

One person who is seeking federal whistleblower protection has turned over the documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as to Congress.

Facebook's own internal reviewers know that the platform has been used for illicit activity between Mexican drug cartels as well as for human trafficking.

The company is also aware of the effect that the social network has on teens' mental health, according to the Journal.

But Facebook did not move to address those issues for fear that it would hurt its bottom line, according to the Journal. 

Trump is currently banned from Facebook for two years, but company officials recommended taking disciplinary action against him as early as June of last year because of his post about the riots that broke out after the death of George Floyd.

The post read in full: 'I can't stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right.

Former President Donald Trump (right) and his son, Donald Trump Jr (left), are among the VIPs who were protected by Facebook's 'XCheck' program, according to The Wall Street Journal. Trump was 'whitelisted' by Facebook before he was banned from the platform for two years earlier this year

Company officials recommended taking disciplinary action against him as early as June of last year because of his 'looting' post about the riots that broke out after the death of George Floy 

Within hours, Twitter had hidden the post behind a warning which accused the tweet of 'violating rules about glorifying violence'. Facebook, meanwhile, left the post up without any disclaimers  

'These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won't let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!'

Within hours Twitter had hidden the post behind a warning to users, which stated: 'This Tweet violated Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to be accessible'.

However, Facebook left Trump's post up without any disclaimers, generating controversy.

Zuckerberg defended the company's decision to leave the post up, saying that it included a reference to the National Guard and Facebook users therefore had a right to know 'if the government was planning to deploy force'.  

According to the Journal, Trump's tweet violated the company rules and should have been deleted.

'Making a manual decision like this seems less defensible than algorithmic scoring and actioning,' one company manager wrote. 

Despite the flaws in the program, Facebook continued to expand 'XCheck' - adding tens of thousands of names ever year. 

This was done despite the fact that Facebook employees knew the company did not invest enough funds in moderation content.

Since the company didn't place a high enough priority on moderating content, it decided to 'whitelist' - or decline to enforce its rules and guidelines - for a select set of users. 

'This problem is pervasive, touching almost every area of the company,' according to a 2019 internal review.

The review noted that whitelists 'pose numerous legal, compliance, and legitimacy risks for the company and harm to our community.' 

Facebook misinformation gets SIX TIMES more attention that factual posts, NYU researchers claim

Far-left and far-right misinformation on Facebook gets six times more likes and shares than factual posts, a study of thousands of pages has revealed - after the social media giant banned the researchers from the platform.

The peer-reviewed study by researchers at New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France combed through 2,551 Facebook pages from August 2020 to January 2021.

It found that misinformation on both sides of the political spectrum spreads faster than facts from authoritative sources like the World Health Organization and corporate news outlets like CNN.

The study was released after Facebook shut down the personal accounts of the researchers, who were looking into data for a different study about political ads before the most recent one was released.

Facebook claimed that the researchers were 'using unauthorized means to access and collect data' in violation of their terms and a 2019 data-privacy settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

But Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC´s consumer protection bureau, hit back saying a consent decree allows Facebook to create exceptions to data collection restrictions 'for good-faith research in the public interest.'

All fake news, left or right-leaning, spreads at six times the rate of facts, a new study says

The academics say the company is attempting to exert control on research that paints it in a negative light. 

The NYU researchers found that 40 percent of far-right sources and 10 percent of center or left-leaning sources promote misinformation. 

They also said misinformation accounts for 68 percent of engagement with far-right sources, compared to just 36 percent for far-left sources.

The study is likely to fuel claims that Facebook has widened the political divide in the US by reinforcing users' pre-existing views and sectioning them off into silos. 

Company founder Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress numerous times, testifying on issues of privacy and abuse of data. 

The research 'helps add to the growing body of evidence that, despite a variety of mitigation efforts, misinformation has found a comfortable home — and an engaged audience — on Facebook,' Rebekah Tromble told the Washington Post. 

Tromble is director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, who reviewed the NYU study's findings.

The study divided news publishers by their political leaning based on information from NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check. 

It found that posts on Facebook pages for left-leaning sites like Occupy Democrats and right-leaning sources like Dan Bongino and Breitbart are equally as likely to travel farther than posts from more centrist sources.  

'What we do find is that these ecosystems are just fundamentally different,' NYU researcher Laura Edelson told CNN. 'The far-right media ecosystem has a much higher share of sources of misinformation - 40 percent in fact.'

The findings have huge implications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost a third of people, 31 percent, get their news about coronavirus from Facebook, according to the Covid States Project. 

In response to criticism over fake news during the 2016 election, Facebook modified its news feed to feature more posts from family and friends and less from pages and companies. 

In July, President Joe Biden said that social media companies that allow the spread of misinformation are 'killing people.' 

NYU researcher Laura Edelson says Facebook previously cut off access to an account she was using for a different study on political ads, claiming her data mining violated FTC rules

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Facebook disputes the findings, claiming that pages, which are public and can be 'liked' by many users, represent a small part of activity on the social media platform.

'This report looks mostly at how people engage with content, which should not be confused with how many people actually see it on Facebook,' said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne. 

'When you look at the content that gets the most reach across Facebook, it is not at all like what this study suggests.'   

He said the company has 80 fact checkers covering over 60 languages to label and reduce the spread of fake news. 

 Edelson, who conducted the misinformation study, was cut off from Facebook last month after the company argued that her data collection for a different study on misinformation in political ads could put them in violation of a 2019 US Federal Trade Commission privacy settlement. 

'This latest action by Facebook to cut off an outside group's transparency efforts - efforts that have repeatedly facilitated revelations of ads violating Facebook's terms of service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook's lackluster Ad Library – is deeply concerning,' said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, in a statement.

Donald Trump's candidacy, and later his presidency, presented problems for Facebook's leadership, which debated whether to remove a video of him calling for a ban on Muslims

The FTC denied Facebook's claim.

'The FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week,' wrote Sam Levine, the FTC's acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a letter to Facebook.

'While it is not our role to resolve individual disputes between Facebook and third parties, we hope that the company is not invoking privacy – much less the FTC consent order – as a pretext to advance other aims,' Levine wrote. 

Conservatives have often complained that big social media platforms have silenced their views. During the 2016 election, Facebook seriously considered removing then-candidate Donald Trump's video calling for a Muslim ban, according to the New York Times.

After Trump carried out a stunning victory, Facebook's security engineers presented a study on how fake news spread so rapidly in the platform. 

Facebook's Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan argued that shutting down the pages would disproportionally impact conservatives, according to the Washington Post.

Trump was eventually banned from both Facebook and Twitter after he called on his supporters to march to the US Capitol on January 6, where they broke into the building in a riot that killed five people.      

Facebook employees complained that the practice of whitelisting left users exposed to misinformation.

'We are knowingly exposing users to misinformation that we have the processes and resources to mitigate,' read a 2019 memo by Facebook researchers.

At one point, content moderators were reviewing less than 10 percent of problematic posts by users shielded by 'XCheck.' 

One Facebook user who was on the whitelist was allowed to share an article by a doctor who died more than 40 years ago claiming that chemotherapy was ineffective in treating cancer. 

'One of the fundamental reasons I joined FB Is that I believe in its potential to be a profoundly democratizing force that enables everyone to have an equal civic voice,' Samidh Chakrabarti, an executive who headed Facebook's Civic Team, wrote in a document.

'So having different rules on speech for different people is very troubling to me.' 

Other employees expressed their displeasure with the program.

'FB's decision-making on content policy is influenced by political considerations,' wrote a company economist in the data-science division.

Kaushik Iyer, an engineer for Facebook's civic integrity team, wrote in June 2020: 'Separate content policy from public policy.' 

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