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As Midterms Loom, Meta C.E.O. Shifts Focus Away From Elections

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, made securing the 2020 US election a top priority. He regularly met with an election team, made up of more than 300 people from across his company, to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on upholding voter rights.

Facebook’s core election team, which was renamed Meta last year, has since fallen apart. About 60 people are now mainly focused on elections, while others devote their time to other projects. They meet another director, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not spoken to civil rights groups of late, with some asking him to pay more attention to the November midterm elections.

Securing elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s main concern, said four knowledgeable Meta employees. Instead, he’s focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

The shift in emphasis at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as confidence in the US electoral system has reached a fragile point. The hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riots have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates in November made the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was deprived of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be an important means of reaching American voters.

Misinformation about elections remains rampant online. This month, “2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, with more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commentators said they expected election fraud this year and warned against the use of postal voting and electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies have also withdrawn some of their focus on elections. Twitter, which stopped labeling and removing disinformation about the election in March 2021, was in the process of selling $44 billion to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.

“Businesses should step up their efforts to prepare to protect the integrity of elections for years to come, not back down,” said Katie Harbath, chief executive of the consultancy Anchor Change, who previously oversaw election policy at Meta. led. “Many issues, including candidates claiming the 2020 elections were fraudulent, remain and we don’t know how they are dealing with them.”

Meta, which partnered with Twitter to ban Mr Trump from its platforms after the US Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, has worked over the years to curtail political untruths on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a Meta spokesperson, said the company “has taken a comprehensive approach to how elections run on our platforms since before the 2020 US election and throughout the dozen global elections since.”

According to Mr. Reynolds, Meta has hundreds of people in more than 40 teams engaged in election work. With each election, he said, the company “built teams and technologies and developed partnerships to stop manipulation campaigns, limit the spread of misinformation, and maintain industry-leading transparency around political ads and pages.”

Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter spokesperson, said the company is “continuing our efforts to protect the integrity of election talks and keep the public informed about our approach.” For the midterms, Twitter has tagged the accounts of political candidates and provided information boxes on how to vote in local elections.

How Meta and Twitter handle elections has implications outside of the United States, given the global nature of their platforms. In Brazil, which will hold general elections in October, President Jair Bolsonaro has recently expressed doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia will also hold elections in October.

“People in the US are almost certainly getting the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to integrity on any platform, especially before US elections,” said Sahar Massachi, the executive director of the Integrity Institute think tank and a former Facebook employee. “And so as bad as it is here, just think how much worse it is everywhere else.”

Facebook’s role in potentially disrupting elections became apparent after 2016, when Russian agents used the site to distribute incendiary content and divide American voters in the US presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.

“The most important thing I care about right now is making sure that no one interferes with the various 2018 elections around the world,” he said.

The social network has since become efficient at dispelling foreign attempts to spread disinformation in the United States, election experts say. But Facebook and Instagram are still grappling with conspiracy theories and other political lies on their sites, they said.

In November 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a dinner at his home for civil rights leaders and held telephone and Zoom conference calls with them, promising to put electoral integrity first.

He also regularly met with an election team. More than 300 employees from various product and engineering teams were asked to build new systems to detect and remove misinformation. Facebook also acted aggressively to eliminate toxic content, banning QAnon conspiracy theories and groups in October 2020.

Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund polling stations, pay polling rents, provide personal protective equipment and other administrative expenses.

The week before the November 2020 elections, Meta also froze all political advertisements to limit the spread of untruths.

But while there were successes — the company kept foreign election interference out of the platform — it struggled with how to deal with Mr Trump, who used his Facebook account to bolster false claims of voter fraud. After the January 6 riots, Facebook banned Mr Trump from posting. He is eligible for reassignment in January 2023.

Last year, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistleblower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election security features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook prioritized growth and engagement over security. she said.

In October, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would target the metaverse. The company has been restructured, with more resources devoted to developing the online world.

Meta has also redesigned his election team. Now the number of workers whose job it is to focus solely on elections is about 60, up from more than 300 in 2020, according to workers. Hundreds of others participate in election rallies and are part of cross-functional teams, where they work on other things. Divisions building virtual reality software, an important part of the metaverse, have expanded.

Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those dealing with election security, the four officials said, although he receives their reports. Instead, they meet Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.

Several civil rights groups said they had noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg is no longer involved in discussions with them as he once was, nor with other top executives at Meta, they said.

“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, speaking with Mr. Zuckerberg and Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. “It seems out of sight, out of mind. ” (Mrs. Sandberg has announced that she will be leaving Meta this fall.)

Rashad Robinson, chairman of Color of Change, another civil rights group, said Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg asked his organization for recommendations in 2020 to counter election misinformation. Their suggestions were largely ignored, he said, and he hasn’t communicated with either executive in over a year. He now works with Meta’s vice president of civil rights, Roy Austin.

Meta said Mr. Austin meets quarterly with civil rights leaders, adding that it was the only major social media company to have an executive responsible for civil rights.

In May, 130 civil rights groups, progressive think tanks and public interest groups wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the chief executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They called on them to remove posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of misinformation ahead of the midterm elections.

Yosef Getachew, director of the nonprofit public advocacy group Common Cause, whose group was studying misinformation about the 2020 election on social media, said the companies have not responded.

“The Big Lie is at the center of the midterm elections, with so many candidates using it to preemptively declare that the 2022 elections will be stolen,” he said, citing recent tweets from politicians in Michigan and Arizona who falsely said that dead people cast votes for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcing the Big Lie.”

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