E&C Leaders Demand Answers from Facebook for Knowingly Permitting Extremism & Disinformation to Grow on its Platform
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette (D-CO), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today demanding answers for the company’s role in knowingly allowing extremist content and groups to grow despite reports that multiple internal company reviews found that the platform’s own policies and recommendation tools were responsible for the rapid spread of extremism and disinformation.
The four Committee leaders describe how, long before the siege on the Capitol on January 6, Facebook executives reportedly received multiple warnings that the platform promotes division and extremism, including through several presentations from researchers and from cross functional teams within the company.
“This deadly attack on the Capitol laid bare the dire consequences of hyperpolarization and extremism in our current political discourse – much of which is occurring on your platform,” the four Committee chairs wrote to Mr. Zuckerberg. “With more than 3 billion monthly users across different services, Facebook must play a leading role in lessening the divide and lowering the temperature. To that end, the Committee is interested in understanding more about Facebook’s research on divisive content and user behavior, the reported presentations and recommendations made to Facebook executives and their actions in response, and the steps Facebook leadership has taken to reduce polarization on its platform.”
According to reports, a Facebook researcher warned in a 2016 presentation that extremist content was thriving on the platform and that Facebook’s own recommendation tools were responsible for “64 percent of all the extremist group joins.” Later, in a 2018 presentation, senior Facebook executives were warned that if left unchecked, Facebook’s algorithms would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” Finally, just months ago in a 2020 presentation, Facebook executives reportedly were warned that “blatant misinformation and calls to violence were filling the majority of the platform’s top ‘civic’ Groups,” and that there was a “need to do something to stop these conversations from happening and growing as quickly as they do.”
“Despite these warnings, reports indicate that certain Facebook executives – including Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Public Policy – regularly balked at implementing reforms,” the lawmakers continued in their letter to Mark Zuckerberg.
Beginning around 2017, Facebook reportedly launched internal research on divisive content and user behavior, building a cross-functional task force of engineers and researchers, known as the ‘Common Ground’ task force, charged with developing proposals to combat polarization on the platform. Facebook also reportedly formed employee teams of engineers and data scientists, called “Integrity Teams,” tasked with combating fake news, clickbait, inauthentic users, and similar issues. Any significant new integrity-ranking initiative advanced by these teams, however, first had to clear an internal vetting process, known as “Eat Your Veggies,” that reportedly consisted of representatives from Facebook’s public policy, marketing, and public relations teams, among others.
While the Common Ground task force and Integrity Teams made several recommendations for improving the platform, certain Facebook executives, including Mr. Kaplan, reportedly blocked or weakened multiple proposed changes during the internal vetting process.
The Committee leaders are demanding copies of relevant materials and answers to a sweeping series of questions, including:
- When and why Facebook first began conducting research into divisive content and behavior on its platform;
- Whether in the course of any internal studies or analyses Facebook uncovered any evidence or reached any findings that would confirm or suggest its platform, algorithms, or other tools exacerbate divisiveness or polarization;
- Details on the Common Ground task force and Integrity Teams, as well as the review process that led to the two teams’ recommendations, and whether and how Facebook addressed or adopted such recommendations;
- Details on the Eat Your Veggies process, including the names and role of each person involved in the process;
- Copies of the 2016, 2018, and 2020 presentations warning of the rise of extremist content and the platform’s role in promoting it;
- All documents and communications referring or relating to those presentations, any recommendations, suggestions, or proposals by the Common Ground task force or any Integrity Teams regarding divisiveness, polarization, or user behavior, and the Eat Your Veggies process.
Read the full letter to Facebook HERE.