Report: Secret Facebook Program Exempted Celebrities, VIPs From Moderation Policies, Internal Review Calls It ‘Breach of Trust’

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For years, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has insisted that the ground is level on his platform, and the company treats its nearly three billion users equally. But according to a new Wall Street Journal report, a secret Facebook program known as “X-Check” or “Cross-Check” has long allowed celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile accounts to avoid policies other users must follow.

A confidential, internal audit the outlet managed to obtain found that Cross-Check has permitted millions of famous users to post bullying, sexual material, hate speech, incitement to violence, and other banned content without censure. Some privileged users enjoy a totally hands-off approach while rule-violating posts from others are flagged for reviews that never come.

The Whitelist

Originally, Cross-Check was intended to help Facebook avoid PR issues that might crop up from censoring or deplatforming famous users with an additional layer of review. In practice, the company’s researchers found it resulted in many high-profile accounts being “whitelisted.” These individuals could say what they liked without the threat of penalties ordinary users experience at the hands of Facebook’s moderators and algorithms.

For example, in 2019 Facebook allowed Brazilian soccer player Neymar to post nude images of a woman who had accused him of rape on an account followed by tens of millions of fans. Facebook eventually took the photos down, but not as quickly as it would have in other cases. The Journal says the review also shows that the company allowed VIPs to incorrectly claim that former President Donald Trump said asylum-seeking refugees are “animals” and that Hillary Clinton led a pedophile ring.

The Journal reported Facebook researchers found the company’s favoritism to those users “to be both widespread and ‘not publicly defensible.’”

A 2019 internal memo titled “The Political Whitelist Contradicts Facebook’s Core Stated Principles” detailed the disconnect between the social media giant’s public stance and its actual practice. The researchers called the program a “breach of trust” and stated, “We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly…Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

The Journal’s reporting concluded that, based on these documents, Facebook’s public responses to questions about its oversight policies and procedures—including those it has provided in Congressional hearings — are often misleading or partial. It said the company had disguised the extent of leadership’s knowledge of these problems.

The Oversight Board, the independent body instituted in 2018 that Facebook describes as a kind of “supreme court” that settles precedent-setting moderation questions, said Monday that it has called on the company to address the murky rules it applies to celebrities in the past.  “The Oversight Board has expressed on multiple occasions its concern about the lack of transparency in Facebook’s content moderation processes, especially relating to the company’s inconsistent management of high-profile accounts,” it posted in a Twitter thread.

It went on, “The Board has repeatedly made recommendations that Facebook be far more transparent in general, including about its management of high-profile accounts, while ensuring that its policies treat all users fairly.”

Facebook’s Response

Facebook‘s policy communications director Andy Stone addressed The Journal’s report on Twitter Monday, saying in a thread, “As we said in 2018: ‘Cross-check’ simply means that some content from certain Pages or Profiles is given a second layer of review to make sure we’ve applied our policies correctly.’ There aren’t two systems of justice; it’s an attempted safeguard against mistakes.”

He continued:

In his article, [Wall Street Journal reporter] Jeff Horwitz quotes Mark Zuckerberg making statements to Congress about our misinformation policies and Fact Checking program.

Yet he relates those to issues with the cross-check program as a way of conflating the programs and misleading readers about the context of the remarks to Congress.

The Journal’s reporting also suggests we were not clear about the ability of politicians to speak freely on the platform — suggesting this somehow a secret protection.

But since 2019, when we, ourselves, promoted that the company would take this approach to politicians’ speech, there have been literally hundreds of news stories critical of our approach.

In the end, at the center of this story is Facebook’s own analysis that we need to improve the program. We know our enforcement is not perfect and there are tradeoffs between speed and accuracy.

The WSJ piece repeatedly cites Facebook’s own documents pointing to the need for changes that are in fact already underway at the company. We have new teams, new resources and an overhaul of the process that is an existing work-stream at Facebook.

But according to The Journal, the internal documents prove that “Facebook knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands.”

More to Come

The outlet concluded by saying this will be only the first in a series of articles based on internal documents, as well as interviews with dozens of current and former employees.

The second report, published Tuesday, found that the company had reason to know its sister platform, Instagram, has been damaging to the mental health of teens in ways specific to that app. The Journal promises further reporting will be forthcoming.

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