Facebook Gears Up for Possible Election Chaos With Tools Designed for ‘At-Risk’ Countries

Facebook Gears Up for Possible Election Chaos With Tools Designed for ‘At-Risk’ Countries
Photo: Lionel Bonaventure, Getty Images

Given all the disinformation campaigns running rampant online in the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Facebook says it’s preparing for the worst come election night. It’s gearing up to use a moderation toolset it’s previously deployed in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, people familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal.

That’s right, America’s political landscape has grown so turbulent that Facebook’s bracing for election chaos with measures designed for what it calls “at-risk” countries, aka those that deal with ethnic cleansing, mass political bloodshed, and other widespread unrest.

These potential measures include “an across-the-board slowing of the spread of posts as they start to go viral and tweaking the news feed to change what types of content users see among others,” according to the Journal. Facebook could also lower the threshold for what kind of content its moderation systems flag as problematic.

Company higher-ups have said these tools are the nuclear option and will only be used in the event of election-related violence or other dire circumstances, people familiar with the planning told the outlet. Some employees at the company said they were uneasy about these measures and particularly concerned that they could suppress legitimate political discussions and viral content, according to the Journal.

Facebook established its toolkit for humanitarian intervention after facing widespread criticism for mishandling violent hate speech against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. As far back as 2014, human rights activists implored Facebook to crack down on inflammatory rumours and calls for violence against the minority Rohingya population. After years of violence, mass exodus, and thousands of deaths, Facebook admitted in 2018 that it had been “too slow to act” and wasn’t “doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” The company pledged to better prepare for future crises and promptly banned several high-profile figures that were named by the United Nations as complicit in the genocide.

“We’ve spent years building for safer, more secure elections,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the Journal. “We’ve applied lessons from previous elections, hired experts, and built new teams with experience across different areas to prepare for various scenarios.”

In a September blog post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg conceded that November’s contentious election “is not going to be business as usual” and said he was “worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalised, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country.”

To try to keep that from happening, Facebook announced last month that it would not accept new political ad submissions a week before election day and plans to ban all political ads indefinitely once the polls close. It also said it will label any premature declarations of victory by either candidate (though, really, we all know which one they’re worried about) and include “specific information…that the counting is still in progress and no winner has been determined.” Facebook’s VP of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, recently said that, to date, the company’s rejected 2.2 million ads and withdrawn 120,000 posts in total across Facebook and Instagram that were trying to “obstruct voting” in the 2020 presidential election.

Of course, even with all this talk about preserving election integrity, it should be noted that Facebook’s had a pretty milquetoast response to inflammatory posts from President Donald Trump so far. It failed to take down a post where Trump essentially advocated for voter fraud; he told his supporters to vote both by mail and in-person if they can’t confirm their ballots were counted, which would be nearly impossible since, in many states, officials don’t even start counting mail-in ballots until after the polls close. Facebook also refused to remove a now-infamous post where Trump called for authorities to open fire on demonstrators protesting police brutality in Minneapolis, saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

This is all to say that if Facebook’s moderation policies were the one thing standing between democracy and America crumbling into anarchy on election day, get ready for the Purge.

[The Wall Street Journal]