At one point, Facebook’s relationship with politicians was relatively uncontroversial.
But after the 2016 US election, everything changed.
Early in the campaign, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump tested the limits of Facebook’s rules against hate speech at the same time that the company became a vehicle for political exploitation by foreign actors.
Facebook’s first test: dealing with Trump’s 2015 Facebook post calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US. While some within the company saw a strong argument that Trump’s comments violated Facebook’s rules against religious hate speech, the company decided to uphold the post. Until then, most Facebook employees had never struggled with the possibility that their platform could be used to divide a political candidate for the highest office.
“What do you do when the leading presidential candidate mounts an attack…on? [one of the] the greatest religion[s] in the world?” former Facebook employee and Democratic lobbyist Crystal Patterson told us.
And Facebook had to worry not only about national politicians, but also about foreign opponents. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s initial post-election comments rejecting the “pretty crazy idea” that fake news on the platform could influence the election, it soon became clear that propaganda from Russian Facebook accounts reached millions of American voters – caused an unprecedented backlash that forced the company to reckon with its guilt in influencing global politics.
In time, Zuckerberg would recognize Facebook’s role as the “The Fifth Estate” — an entity as powerful as the government and the media in shaping the public agenda, while at the same time attempting to fulfill the role of the company. minimize in dictating the acceptable terms of political speech.
To ease the burden of political accountability going forward, Facebook created the Oversight Board, a sort of Supreme Court body it created to weigh in on controversial content decisions — including how to deal with Trump’s account. But the board is new and we are still learning how much power it has over Facebook. How much responsibility does Facebook have left to dictate the terms of its own platform? And can the board go far enough to change the underlying engine of the social media platform: the recommendation algorithms?
We explore these questions about Facebook’s role in moderating political speech in our fourth installment of Land of the Giants, Vox Media Podcast Network’s award-winning narrative podcast series about the most influential technology companies of our time. This season, recode and The edge have teamed up in seven episodes to tell the story of Facebook’s journey to become Meta, featuring interviews with current and former executives.