Progressives ramp up fight against Facebook

Progressives ramp up fight against Facebook
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A broad array of progressive groups are stepping up their battle against Facebook, creating a loose coalition to hit back at the largest social network in the world over allegations that it has harmed their ability to organize.

The groups, representing a large swath of the progressive left, say they have been unfairly caught up in Facebook’s efforts to crack down on fake accounts and election manipulation, leaving them scrambling to maintain their Facebook pages and millions of followers.      

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Members of the Campaign to Regulate and Break Up Big Tech, a new coalition in the nascent stages of organizing, have been meeting with regulators and lawmakers after direct talks with top Facebook officials broke down, according to the groups.

“It became increasingly clear that dialogue was not going to get us very far,” a progressive strategist involved with organizing the coalition told The Hill. 

“That’s why an increasing number of groups have come together to jointly strategize, to coordinate planning to achieve those two goals: regulation of the platform on the one hand, and breaking up Big Tech,” the strategist added.

Conservatives have been more public about their criticism as they claim Facebook routinely censors right-wing voices, allegations that the company has vociferously denied. But some on the left have been leveling that accusation behind closed doors.

“In every aspect and every decision Facebook has made, it has skewed conservative,” Kyle Tanner, the national digital director for Fight for 15, said. “Even as they’ve made moves to ... stop the digital interference and campaigning of state actors in domestic elections post-2016, those moves have hurt progressives, have hurt Democrats.” Facebook has denied all allegations of bias.

Representatives from groups including March for Our Lives, MoveOn, Fight for 15, Social Security Works, Daily Kos and other left-wing heavyweights met multiple times with top Facebook officials starting after the midterm elections in 2018.

Progressives who spoke to The Hill said they asked for the meetings after Facebook removed or restricted many of their pages amid the company’s October 2018 purge of "spam-like" political content.

“The biggest thing was, ‘Clarify the rules for us,’ ” Chris Reeves, a longtime organizer who currently serves as a Kansas Democratic committeeman and participated in a meeting over the phone, told The Hill. “Because nobody seems to understand, and they won’t tell us what the actual hard-and-fast rules of their platform are.”

Reeves said many of the left-wing activists felt frustrated as they saw their engagement numbers go down while conservatives seemed to dominate Facebook.

The meetings with progressives, which have not been previously reported, spanned months and involved high-level Facebook officials, including the company’s top lobbyist, Kevin Martin; head of global policy Monika Bickert; head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher; director of external affairs Lindsay Elin; and others, according to sources involved in the talks.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the company held multiple meetings with the groups, which were organized in part by political consulting firm Democracy Partners.

“We appreciate the feedback we’ve received in meetings with these organizations, along with the chance to describe our efforts to be fully transparent in how we operate,” the spokesperson told The Hill in a statement.

“Our policies are outlined in great detail — publicly — as are our enforcement practices and the process people can use to appeal our decisions,” the spokesperson added.

By the end of January of this year, many of the groups were left feeling dejected and personally aggrieved, alleging that Facebook officials had taken no substantive action about their concerns.

“It felt like they were approaching it like, ‘OK, this is one of those days we have to stick it out and get yelled at by these people,’ but they don’t actually do anything,” Charlie Mirsky, a co-founder of the powerful gun violence prevention group March for Our Lives, told The Hill. 

Over half a dozen progressive sources described a sense of helplessness when dealing with Facebook’s ever-shifting and oftentimes mysterious algorithmic tweaks. Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works – which runs a Facebook page with 471,565 followers – said his organization has spent $40,000 since 2017 on Facebook but still struggles to keep ahead of what behavior will cause the company to "bring the hammer down."    

Carolyn Fiddler, the communications director for left-leaning news organization Daily Kos, told The Hill her organization has been frustrated with Facebook’s lack of transparency over algorithmic changes. She said they are currently engaged in conversations over how the publication is treated on the platform. Fiddler confirmed that Daily Kos will be part of the Facebook News Tab while the organization continues to push against Facebook's decision to include right-leaning publication Breitbart News as a partner.

Many organizers across the political spectrum know Facebook is a vital tool to organize, amplify their messages and ask for donations. But increasingly over the past year, popular left-wing political pages have been taken down suddenly or had their reach limited by Facebook, the sources said, as the platform tries to act more aggressively against bots and spam following the 2016 presidential election. Right-wing pages have also been taken down and affected by the changes.

Political activists for years coordinated campaigns on Facebook by having multiple pages and groups post the same message at the same time. But after 2016, when Russian operatives were able to successfully push disinformation campaigns across the platform, some groups said they felt they were punished for using that strategy.

At a meeting in January, Gleicher told the groups they’d been caught up in a “net” as Facebook’s systems worked to take down “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” the platform’s term for online activity that seems spammy or driven by bots, multiple sources confirmed.

The groups asked Facebook to whitelist their organizations in order to ensure they did not get caught up in future efforts to take down fake campaigns, two sources said. But officials have not followed up on that request.

On Jan. 29, the groups delivered a set of demands to Facebook mainly focused on “transparency,” according to a copy of the demands obtained by The Hill. They asked Facebook to publish “clear, precise rules” that would apply to “pages and publishers of all sizes and ideological orientations” and asked for the platform to offer more specific explanations when pages were taken down.

A Facebook spokesperson pointed out that the company updated its Community Standards in April 2018 to delineate more granular details about where Facebook draws the line and why it removes certain content. 

Facebook also notifies individual users, page administrators and group administrators when they violate the company’s rules.

The spokesperson rejected allegations that Facebook “discourages” sharing posts between pages, but said Facebook has rules against clickbait and spam because people do not want to see it.

After the talks purportedly broke down, representatives with several of the progressive organizations have joined together to form the Campaign to Regulate and Break Up Big Tech, an effort to make the case to lawmakers and regulators that Facebook can only be reined in through regulation or a total breakup of the company.

The progressives participate in a weekly call to discuss and strategize around antitrust issues, multiple sources confirmed. And the group has brought the anti-Facebook crusade to key lawmakers and at least one state attorney general.

Members have met with Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyThe Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment of Trump resumes Warren receives endorsement from Illinois congresswoman ahead of Chicago rally Overnight Health Care: Trump draws ire after retreat on drug price promise | Harris unveils mental health plan | Dem bill targets violence against women around the world MORE (D-Ill.), who is leading efforts to write an online privacy bill in the House, and House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee staff, who are probing the country’s largest tech companies, including Facebook, multiple sources said. They have raised their concerns with Minnesota Attorney General Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonMinnesota sues Juul over rise in youth vaping Jane Fonda calls for protecting water resources at weekly DC climate protest Progressives ramp up fight against Facebook MORE (D), one of the 47 attorneys general currently investigating Facebook for antitrust issues, according to two sources. And one source said they are continuing to reach out to other state attorneys general.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is help the country see this new form of exploitation for what it is,” Aram Fischer, an organizer with Indivisible who participates in the weekly calls from San Francisco, told The Hill. “We seek policy changes that end the exploitation and also promote more transparency.” 

Reeves said the organizers first approached Facebook with the “hope that they would be transparent and work with us.”

“As time has gone on, it’s become clear that they don’t have an intent to work with us,” Reeves said. “Now you start reaching out to state attorney generals and legislators and saying, ‘Look, somebody has to figure this out.’” 

Updated at 12:30 P.M. to include clarification that Daily Kos is part of the Facebook News initiative.