Kaplan’s “paternalistic” joke, Harbath says, matched her memory of how conservatives at Facebook saw the project — as an attempt by a retinue of left-wing engineers. “What I think Joel was trying to hold onto was a very small patch of land, trying to make sure we were thinking about the whole spectrum of political thoughts and ideas,” she says. Even more fundamental to the opposition of Kaplan and Zuckerberg, Harbath says, was a growing belief that Facebook’s job was not to solve America’s polarization crisis. Although Common Ground was disbanded, Eat Your Veggies stuck — becoming the codified process for all “major/sensitive news feed launches,” according to the Facebook Papers, a trove of documents leaked by the whistleblower Haugen.
There was another reason Common Ground was important: it exposed Facebookers’ inner competing ideas about political justice. Time and again, data scientists and engineers have told me that if a proposed model applies neutral rules but flagged conservative users more than liberal ones, Kaplan or his team would effectively slow it down. Policymakers often asked for experimental assessments that simulated how the change would affect users and publishers through political ideology. On civic integrity, staffers argued for “equality of process” rather than what they termed the “equality of outcome” of the policy team. “The policy under Joel just had a very different set of incentives,” said a Civil Integrity officer. Rather than derive a neutral standard, independent of the outcome for the left or the right, the staffer said, the policy team has pushed a platform where “the standard is the outcome.”
Many in Policy, and the other defenders of Kaplan, vehemently oppose the idea that they unnecessarily weighed political results in their decisions. Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, says the policy processes that examined the results of a proposed change or launch were designed to scrutinize product discussions closely and closely. Only then, Rosen says, can Facebook plausibly defend its policies externally (a concern often raised in a company that has been dragged before Congress more than 30 times). The idea that Kaplan was carrying water for conservatives “is such bullshit,” says a former DC Policy employee, a Democrat, who instead recalls asking “sensible questions about how a critical constituency for Facebook will see something we have.” done.”
The clash of philosophies between the two sides would become a permanent source of “very high tension” on Facebook during the Trump era, says a former Civic Integrity employee. Over the next few years, the policy approach to fairness would undeniably favor some right-wing provocateurs. When Kaplan insisted that a subsidiary of Daily Caller become an outside fact-checking partner, Civic Integrity staffers replied that the move would damage the program’s reputation — the Daily Caller was a frequent violator of misinformation, even if its subsidiary was accredited. But Kaplan persisted. (“How do we keep saying no to them?” one employee recalls Kaplan saying. “It’s a legit news site.”)
Internally, Facebook employees have flagged actions by the policy team that some deemed particularly inappropriate. In July 2020, an employee posted on Facebook’s Workplace discussion forum warning colleagues about several instances of “bias in the enforcement of misinformation policies.” In a report reviewed by WIRED, the employee documented evidence that Breitbart relied directly on the policy team’s contacts to lift fines for misinformation. A policy official had marked such a Breitbart appeal as “urgent”; within hours, all attacks on Breitbart’s disinformation had been erased. Among several other examples, the employee also documented an Instagram post by Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old podcaster and founder of Turning Point USA, which was judged as “partially false” by fact-checkers. After Kirk made a direct call to have the label removed, it was marked with a note that read “PRIORITY – WAS REQUESTED BY JOEL.” Of the three dozen such escalations, a “significant majority” came from conservative publishers, while none were from outwardly progressive publishers, the employee wrote, asking, “What led to this disparity?”
After Charlie Kirk made a direct call to have the label removed, it was marked with a note that read “PRIORITY – WAS REQUESTED BY JOEL.”
Patterson told me that Facebook’s liberal stance on conservatives created a feedback loop that encouraged them to “work the umpires.” “People on the right feel empowered to complain because they know they’re probably going to get their way,” she says. “People on the left don’t tend to do that.”
Nevertheless, during the first half of the Trump administration, conservatives aggressively escalated charges that Facebook had rigged them against them. In June 2018, Kaplan and Harbath met Kevin McCarthy, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and then Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who complained about unfair changes to the platform. Kaplan pushed back, explaining that right-wing content tended to violate community norms more. “This is not going to be a 50-50 situation,” Kaplan told them. In October 2018, before the midterm elections, Kaplan personally approved the removal of 800 political news pages, spanning left and right, for violation of CIB policy.
This post The Infinite Reach of Joel Kaplan, Washington’s Facebook Man
was original published at “https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-joel-kaplan-washington-political-influence”