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House Democrats press Facebook on role as a ‘breeding ground for polarization’

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Top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday pressed Facebook over its role in allowing the spread of dangerous misinformation, as well its internal process to weigh and implement changes designed at remedying polarization on the platform. 

“The Committee is deeply concerned about dangerous and divisive rhetoric thriving on Facebook’s platform and is considering legislation to address these issues. From conspiracy theorists peddling false information to extremist voices urging and organizing violence, Facebook has become a breeding ground for polarization and discord,” the Democrats wrote in a letter

The lawmakers cited reports of Facebook groups and pages being used to post “ominous threats” against elected officials and police officers, with threats fueled by “lies of voter fraud and rigged elections.” 

The letter was signed by Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

In response to the letter, a Facebook spokesperson reiterated actions the platform has announced to crack down on misinformation and extremist content. 

“We’ve banned QAnon and militia groups from organizing on our apps, designated more than 250 white supremacist groups, removed billions of fake accounts – and we’re the only platform to build a global network of over 80 fact-checking partners to address misinformation. We make big decisions with input from people with different perspectives and areas of expertise and have used both external and internal research on the impact of polarization to change how we operate our platform,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The social media giant had doubled down on its pledge to remove content spreading election misinformation shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. 

Just days after the riot, Facebook said it would take down content that contained the phrase “Stop the Steal,” which had become a common rallying cry around those spreading election misinformation undermining the results that former President Trump lost. The effort, however, was reported to have missed pages promoting the debunked claims. 

The Democrats also called out Facebook for not responding to multiple reported warnings about the “divisive nature of its platform.” 

“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. With more than 3 billion monthly users across different services, Facebook must play a leading role in lessening the divide and lowering the temperature,” the Democrats wrote. 

The letter cites reports that Facebook launched internal research on divisive content and user behavior known as the “Common Ground” task force, charged with creating proposals to combat polarization on the platform, as well as “Integrity Teams,” tasked with combating “fake news,” inauthentic users and other similar issues. 

Initiatives advanced by the teams, however, reportedly had to clear an internal vetting process at Facebook that consisted of officials across Facebook’s public policy, marketing and public relations teams. 

The Democrats are questioning Facebook over reports that the recommendations were “blocked or weakened” during the vetting process. 

In May, Facebook released a blog post outlining some of its efforts to fight polarization after a Wall Street Journal story reported the platform had shelves internal research. The post discussed the platform’s so-called “eat your veggies” vetting process that the Democrats questioned in the letter. 

“The process was put in place as a response to valid criticism, including from the media, that tech companies weren’t doing enough to anticipate unintended uses of their products,” Facebook said at the time. 

The lawmakers asked Facebook for a detailed description of its internal vetting process, including the name and role of each person involved, and if it continues to follow the same process today.

The lawmakers also requested Facebook provide detailed information about its internal studies on divisiveness and polarization, as well as findings and recommendations from Facebook’s Common Ground task force and the Integrity Teams. They’re also requesting answers as to how Facebook addressed or adopted the behaviors. 

The committee members are requesting Facebook’s response by March 9, just weeks before CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before the committee along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. 

The hearing will focus on the spread of online misinformation, a topic on which Democrats have repeatedly slammed the platforms. 

Republicans on the committee have also pushed for a hearing with the CEOs. The Republicans have also lamented the platform’s content moderation enforcement, but the GOP members have leveled unsubstantiated claims that the tech giants are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias.

Updated: 8 p.m.

Tags Capitol breach Capitol riot Diana DeGette Donald Trump Facebook Google Jan Schakowsky Mark Zuckerberg Mike Doyle misinformation QAnon Twitter
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