Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, made securing the 2020 U.S. election a top priority. He met regularly with an election team, which included 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.
The core election team at Facebook, which was renamed Meta last year, has since been dispersed. Roughly 60 people are now focused primarily on elections, while others split their time on other projects. They meet with another executive, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not talked recently with civil rights groups, even as some have asked him to pay more attention to the midterm elections in November.
Safeguarding elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s top concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is 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 were not authorized to speak publicly.
hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.
2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commenters said they expected election fraud this year and warned against using mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.
$44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested that he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.
barred Mr. Trump from its platforms after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has worked over the years to limit political falsehoods on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a Meta spokesman, said the company had “taken a comprehensive approach to how elections play out on our platforms since before the U.S. 2020 elections and through the dozens of global elections since then.”
recently raised doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia are also holding elections in October.
“People in the U.S. are almost certainly getting the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to any integrity on any platform, especially for U.S. elections,” said Sahar Massachi, the executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and a former Facebook employee. “And so however bad it is here, think about how much worse it is everywhere else.”
Facebook’s role in potentially distorting elections became evident after 2016, when Russian operatives used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.
banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.
Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay for rental fees for polling places, provide personal protective equipment and cover other administrative costs.
The week before the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political advertising to limit the spread of falsehoods.
But while there were successes — the company kept foreign election interference off the platform — it struggled with how to handle Mr. Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false claims of voter fraud. After the Jan. 6 riot, Facebook barred Mr. Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January.
Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee turned whistle-blower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election safety features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook made growth and engagement its priorities over security, she said.
fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
The future. Many people in tech believe the metaverse will herald an era in which our virtual lives will play as important a role as our physical realities. Some experts warn that it could still turn out to be a fad or even dangerous.
Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those focused on election security, said the four employees, though he receives their reports. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.
Several civil right groups said they had noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t involved in discussions with them as he once was, nor are other top Meta executives, they said.
“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who talked with Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. “It appears to be out of sight, out of mind.” (Ms. Sandberg has announced that she will leave Meta this fall.)
wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the chief executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They called for them to take down posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of election misinformation before the midterms.
Yosef Getachew, a director at the nonprofit public advocacy organization Common Cause, whose group studied 2020 election misinformation on social media, said the companies had not responded.
“The Big Lie is front and center in the midterms with so many candidates using it to pre-emptively declare that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets from politicians in Michigan and Arizona who falsely said dead people cast votes for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcing against the Big Lie.”
Ms. Sandberg flirted with leaving Facebook. In 2016, she told colleagues that if Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, won the White House she would most likely assume a job in Washington, three people who spoke to her about the move at the time said. In 2018, after revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she again told colleagues that she was considering leaving but did not want to do so when the company was in crisis.
Last year, Mr. Zuckerberg said his company was making a new bet and was going all in on the metaverse, which he called “the successor to the mobile internet.” In his announcement, Ms. Sandberg made only a cameo, while other executives were more prominently featured.
As Mr. Zuckerberg overhauled the company to focus on the metaverse, some of Ms. Sandberg’s responsibilities were spread among other executives. Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs and a former British deputy prime minister, became the company’s chief spokesman, a role that Ms. Sandberg had once taken. In February, Mr. Clegg was promoted to president of global affairs for Meta.
Ms. Sandberg’s profile dimmed. She concentrated on building the ads business and growing the number of small businesses on Facebook.
She was also focused on personal matters. Dave Goldberg, her husband, had died unexpectedly in 2015. (Ms. Sandberg’s second book, “Option B,” was about dealing with grief.) She later met Mr. Bernthal, and he and his three children moved to her Silicon Valley home from Southern California during the pandemic. Ms. Sandberg, who had two children with Mr. Goldberg, was focused on integrating the families and planning for her summer wedding, a person close to her said.
Meta’s transition to the metaverse has not been easy. The company has spent heavily on metaverse products while its advertising business has stumbled, partly because privacy changes made by Apple have hurt targeted advertising. In February, Meta’s market value plunged more than $230 billion, its biggest one-day wipeout, after it reported financial results that showed it was struggling to make the leap to the metaverse.
In the interview, Ms. Sandberg said Meta faced near-term challenges but would weather the storm, as it had during past challenges. “When we went public, we had no mobile ads,” Ms. Sandberg said, citing the company’s rapid transition from desktop computers to smartphones last decade. “We have done this before.”
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, took an unusual step last week: It suspended some of the quality controls that ensure that posts from users in Russia, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries meet its rules.
Under the change, Meta temporarily stopped tracking whether its workers who monitor Facebook and Instagram posts from those areas were accurately enforcing its content guidelines, six people with knowledge of the situation said. That’s because the workers could not keep up with shifting rules about what kinds of posts were allowed about the war in Ukraine, they said.
Meta has made more than half a dozen content policy revisions since Russia invaded Ukraine last month. The company has permitted posts about the conflict that it would normally have taken down — including some calling for the death of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and violence against Russian soldiers — before changing its mind or drawing up new guidelines, the people said.
The result has been internal confusion, especially among the content moderators who patrol Facebook and Instagram for text and images with gore, hate speech and incitements to violence. Meta has sometimes shifted its rules on a daily basis, causing whiplash, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
contended with pressure from Russian and Ukrainian authorities over the information battle about the conflict. And internally, it has dealt with discontent about its decisions, including from Russian employees concerned for their safety and Ukrainian workers who want the company to be tougher on Kremlin-affiliated organizations online, three people said.
Meta has weathered international strife before — including the genocide of a Muslim minority in Myanmar last decade and skirmishes between India and Pakistan — with varying degrees of success. Now the largest conflict on the European continent since World War II has become a litmus test of whether the company has learned to police its platforms during major global crises — and so far, it appears to remain a work in progress.
“All the ingredients of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have been around for a long time: the calls for violence, the disinformation, the propaganda from state media,” said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a former special rapporteur to the United Nations. “What I find mystifying was that they didn’t have a game plan to deal with it.”
Dani Lever, a Meta spokeswoman, declined to directly address how the company was handling content decisions and employee concerns during the war.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Meta said it established a round-the-clock special operations team staffed by employees who are native Russian and Ukrainian speakers. It also updated its products to aid civilians in the war, including features that direct Ukrainians toward reliable, verified information to locate housing and refugee assistance.
Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, have been directly involved in the response to the war, said two people with knowledge of the efforts. But as Mr. Zuckerberg focuses on transforming Meta into a company that will lead the digital worlds of the so-called metaverse, many responsibilities around the conflict have fallen — at least publicly — to Nick Clegg, the president for global affairs.
announced that Meta would restrict access within the European Union to the pages of Russia Today and Sputnik, which are Russian state-controlled media, following requests by Ukraine and other European governments. Russia retaliated by cutting off access to Facebook inside the country, claiming the company discriminated against Russian media, and then blocking Instagram.
This month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine praised Meta for moving quickly to limit Russian war propaganda on its platforms. Meta also acted rapidly to remove an edited “deepfake” video from its platforms that falsely featured Mr. Zelensky yielding to Russian forces.
a group called the Ukrainian Legion to run ads on its platforms this month to recruit “foreigners” for the Ukrainian army, a violation of international laws. It later removed the ads — which were shown to people in the United States, Ireland, Germany and elsewhere — because the group may have misrepresented ties to the Ukrainian government, according to Meta.
Internally, Meta had also started changing its content policies to deal with the fast-moving nature of posts about the war. The company has long forbidden posts that might incite violence. But on Feb. 26, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Meta informed its content moderators — who are typically contractors — that it would allow calls for the death of Mr. Putin and “calls for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion,” according to the policy changes, which were reviewed by The New York Times.
Reuters reported on Meta’s shifts with a headline that suggested that posts calling for violence against all Russians would be tolerated. In response, Russian authorities labeled Meta’s activities as “extremist.”
Shortly thereafter, Meta reversed course and said it would not let its users call for the deaths of heads of state.
“Circumstances in Ukraine are fast moving,” Mr. Clegg wrote in an internal memo that was reviewed by The Times and first reported by Bloomberg. “We try to think through all the consequences, and we keep our guidance under constant review because the context is always evolving.”
Meta amended other policies. This month, it made a temporary exception to its hate speech guidelines so users could post about the “removal of Russians” and “explicit exclusion against Russians” in 12 Eastern European countries, according to internal documents. But within a week, Meta tweaked the rule to note that it should be applied only to users in Ukraine.
The constant adjustments left moderators who oversee users in Central and Eastern European countries confused, the six people with knowledge of the situation said.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
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Putin’s advisers. U.S. intelligence suggests that President Vladimir V. Putin has been misinformed by his advisers about the Russian military’s struggles in Ukraine. The intelligence shows what appears to be growing tension between Mr. Putin and the Ministry of Defense, U.S. officials said.
The policy changes were onerous because moderators were generally given less than 90 seconds to decide on whether images of dead bodies, videos of limbs being blown off, or outright calls to violence violated Meta’s rules, they said. In some instances, they added, moderators were shown posts about the war in Chechen, Kazakh or Kyrgyz, despite not knowing those languages.
Ms. Lever declined to comment on whether Meta had hired content moderators who specialize in those languages.
take action against Russia Today and Sputnik, said two people who attended. Russian state activity was at the center of Facebook’s failure to protect the 2016 U.S. presidential election, they said, and it didn’t make sense that those outlets had continued to operate on Meta’s platforms.
While Meta has no employees in Russia, the company held a separate meeting this month for workers with Russian connections. Those employees said they were concerned that Moscow’s actions against the company would affect them, according to an internal document.
In discussions on Meta’s internal forums, which were viewed by The Times, some Russian employees said they had erased their place of work from their online profiles. Others wondered what would happen if they worked in the company’s offices in places with extradition treaties to Russia and “what kind of risks will be associated with working at Meta not just for us but our families.”
Ms. Lever said Meta’s “hearts go out to all of our employees who are affected by the war in Ukraine, and our teams are working to make sure they and their families have the support they need.”
At a separate company meeting this month, some employees voiced unhappiness with the changes to the speech policies during the war, according to an internal poll. Some asked if the new rules were necessary, calling the changes “a slippery slope” that were “being used as proof that Westerners hate Russians.”
Others asked about the effect on Meta’s business. “Will Russian ban affect our revenue for the quarter? Future quarters?” read one question. “What’s our recovery strategy?”