TTP Investigation: Facebook Leans on States to Monitor Election Disinformation, but Provides Insufficient Tools
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 23, 2020
Contact: Michael Clauw, email@example.com, 202.780.5750
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group that runs the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), released a report revealing that Facebook has been encouraging states to monitor for election disinformation on the platform, but is providing them with tools that aren’t sufficient to complete the task. According to emails obtained by TTP through open records requests, Facebook representatives offered various state officials customized dashboards on CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media metrics tool, to track instances of voter interference and report their findings to Facebook. CrowdTangle compiles information posted from public Facebook groups and pages, but does not include posts from most individual users or from private Facebook groups, which are known to be hubs for conspiracy theories and misinformation.
CfA Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said, “It’s bad enough that Facebook is openly outsourcing its enforcement duties, but it’s doing so with the knowledge that the tool it recommends states use to ferret out disinformation provides a more incomplete picture than Facebook’s own internal monitoring capabilities.”
Emails reveal that Facebook reached out to state officials in October 2019 to offer customized “live display” CrowdTangle dashboards. The stated goal was to “provide more transparency” around elections and allow Facebook to “work closely with elections authorities from around the country.” During an accompanying webinar, a Facebook representative explained that state officials should use the dashboards to identify and flag problematic voting content, which would be reviewed by a Facebook team “as quickly as humanly possible.”
Upon examining the platform’s features, some government officials quickly identified CrowdTangle’s limitations. In an email to Facebook, Eric Covey, the chief of staff for Vermont’s secretary of state, correctly noted that much of the election disinformation on Facebook comes from individual users and asked, “Is there a reason why there isn’t a category for public posts from the general population?” He was told that these posts were excluded for “privacy concerns.” Yet many instances of viral disinformation spring from individual user accounts whose posts are set to public. TTP highlighted one such post, a misleading video about mail-in voting in Florida which was shared more than 4,200 times.
The omission of most posts from individual users is not the only blind spot in CrowdTangle’s monitoring tools. A Facebook’s government and politics outreach manager acknowledged in one email that CrowdTangle “cannot currently read the text of graphics,” meaning that propaganda or disinformation contained in memes may not be picked up by CrowdTangle’s dashboards.
Ms. Kuppersmith continued, “Facebook’s offer to assist states with the creation of these dashboards is not an offer of help; it is a clear admission that the company is in way over its head when it comes to election disinformation, and is either unable or unwilling to solve the problem itself.”
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.