The Infinite Reach of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Man in Washington

Kaplan’s “paternalistic” jab, Harbath says, matched her recollection of how conservatives at Facebook saw the project—as an effort by a retinue of left-leaning engineers. “What I think Joel was trying to hold was this very small bit of ground, trying to make sure we were thinking about the entire spectrum of political thought and ideas,” she says. Even more fundamental to Kaplan and Zuckerberg’s opposition, Harbath says, was a growing conviction that it wasn’t Facebook’s job to fix America’s polarization crisis. Although Common Ground was disbanded, Eat Your Veggies stuck around—becoming the codified process for all “major/sensitive news feed launches,” according to the Facebook Papers, a trove of documents leaked by Haugen, the whistleblower.

There was another reason Common Ground was important: It laid bare Facebookers’ inner competing ideas about political fairness. Again and again, data scientists and engineers told me, if a proposed model applied neutral rules but flagged conservative users more than liberal ones, Kaplan or his team would effectively throttle it. Policy staff often requested experimental reviews that simulated how the change would affect users and publishers by political definition. On Civic Integrity, staffers advocated for “equality of process” against what they called the policy team’s “equality of outcome.” “Policy under Joel just had a completely different set of incentives,” says one Civic Integrity staffer. Instead of deriving a neutral standard independent of the outcome for the left or right, the staffer said, the Policy team pushed a platform where “the standard is the outcome.”

Many in Policy, and Kaplan’s other defenders, fiercely resisted the notion that they unduly weighed political outcomes in the balance of their decisions. Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, says that policy procedures that examined the of a proposed change or launch were about instilling rigor and scrutiny into product discussions. Only then, Rosen says, could Facebook plausibly defend its policies externally (a concern frequently invoked in a company that has been hauled before Congress more than 30 times). The idea that Kaplan carried water for conservatives “is such bullshit,” says one former DC Policy staffer, a Democrat, who instead remembers him asking “sensible questions about how a critical constituency for Facebook will perceive something that we have done.”

The two sides’ clash of philosophies would become a permanent source of “very high tension” at Facebook during the Trump era, says one former Civic Integrity staffer. In the coming years, the Policy approach to fairness would pan out in ways undeniably to the benefit of some right-wing provocateurs. When Kaplan pressed to allow a Daily Caller subsidiary to become a third-party fact-checking affiliate, Civic Integrity staffers replied that the move would harm the program’s reputation—the Daily Caller was a frequent offender for misinformation, even if its subsidiary was accredited. But Kaplan persisted. (“How do we keep telling them no?” a staffer recalls Kaplan saying. “They’re a legitimate news site.”)

Internally, Facebook staff have flagged actions by the Policy team that some viewed as particularly improper. In July 2020 an employee posted a message to Facebook’s Workplace discussion board alerting colleagues to several instances of “biases in the enforcement of misinformation policies.” In a post reviewed by WIRED, the employee documented evidence that Breitbart was appealing directly to policy team contacts to override penalties for misinformation. A Policy staffer had flagged one such Breitbart appeal as “urgent”; within hours, all of Breitbart’s misinformation strikes were 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 rated by fact-checkers as “partly false.” After Kirk had made a direct appeal to have the label removed, it was flagged with a note that read “PRIORITY—WAS ASKED BY JOEL.” Of three dozen such escalations, a “significant majority” came from conservative publishers, while none were from outwardly progressive ones, the employee wrote, asking, “What led to this disparity?”

Patterson told me that Facebook’s capacious stance toward conservatives created a feedback loop that encouraged them to “work the refs.” “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.”

Nonetheless, during the first half of the Trump administration, conservatives aggressively escalated the charge that Facebook was rigged against them. In June 2018, Kaplan and Harbath met with 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-leaning content tended to violate community standards more. “This isn’t 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, which spanned the left and right, for violating the CIB policy.

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