Facebook and Its CEO Emerge as Powerful Influence on 2020 Elections

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
September 15, 2020Updated: September 20, 2020

Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are ramping up an unprecedented involvement in the 2020 election.

Zuckerberg recently said Facebook as well as media organizations should brace Americans for delayed election results. He’s also announced new election-related content rules, signaling that Facebook will be deciding what information on its platform will be picked as legitimate if the election results get contentious.

Zuckerberg and his wife earlier this month announced they made a $300 million donation to two nonprofits “to promote safe and reliable voting in states and localities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Meanwhile, “Facebook is already running the largest voting information campaign in American history,” Zuckerberg said in a Sept. 3 online post announcing Facebook’s election plan.

Election Player

Facebook was leveraged to major effect by both the Obama and Trump campaigns to help them win elections.

This cycle, the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), have so far spent nearly $58 million on Facebook ads since January 2019. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have spent almost $95 million on Facebook on their reelection bid.

Facebook has also been exploited by Russian, Iranian, and Chinese actors to advance their agendas among Americans.

In response, the company has adopted several transparency measures in recent years. People advertising on political or social issues need to register their identity with Facebook, and their ads are archived for the public to see. Facebook also reveals where a page is run from to prevent foreigners from pretending they’re Americans.

For this election, Facebook is going much further, making itself an active player in the election.

“We may not know the final result on election night,” Zuckerberg said in a recent Axios interview.

“One of the things that I think we and other media need to start doing is preparing the American people that there’s nothing illegitimate about this election taking additional days or even weeks to make sure that all of the votes are counted. In fact, that might be important to make sure that this is a legitimate and fair election. So we’re going to do a bunch of different messaging around that just to make sure that people know that that’s normal.”

This was a red flag for Logan Churchwell, communications and research director at the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative election watchdog.

“For Facebook to already play the ‘managing expectations’ game, that’s incredibly concerning,” he told The Epoch Times.

Zuckerberg isn’t just talking, though.

$300 Million

Zuckerberg and his wife announced on Sept. 1 that they’ll donate $300 million to two nonprofits that will in turn disburse the money to local and state election offices.

“These donations will help to provide local and state officials across the country with the resources, training and infrastructure necessary to ensure that every voter who intends to cast a ballot is able to, and ultimately, to preserve the integrity of our elections,” they said in a release.

They described the nonprofits as “non-partisan.” Most of the money ($250 million) went to the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which specializes in collecting data on candidates and races across the nation and on training poll workers. It was founded by former managers and staff at the New Organizing Institute, a progressive nonprofit that was training Democrat digital organizers.

CTCL, which already partners with Facebook, says it will disburse the funds as grants to local election offices to cover expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as drive-thru voting sites, personal protective equipment, and expansion of mail-in voting.

Election offices are indeed strapped for cash due to the expectation of COVID-related expenses. However, according to Churchwell, the question will be whether Zuckerberg’s money comes with strings attached.

He summed up the idea as, “We will give you X number of dollars if you perform an election this way.”

CTCL says on its website that grant amount eligibility will be “based on a formula that considers the citizen voting age population and other demographic data of your jurisdiction.”

It’s not clear what other demographic data will play a role. The organization doesn’t appear to provide data on who’s receiving the grants and how much. It didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The disbursement targeting can skew one way or the other depending on whether the money goes to demographic groups that particularly favor either Trump or Biden.

Giving this amount of money directly to government election officials is legal, but unprecedented, opening up uncharted territory, Churchwell said.

Last-Minute Ads

Facebook also announced it will ban new political and issue ads in the last week before the election. Candidates will still be allowed to run existing ads and target them to specific audiences, but no new ones will be accepted.

The Trump campaign objected.

Samantha Zager, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, said via email: “In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, President Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America. When millions of voters will be making their decisions, the President will be silenced by the Silicon Valley Mafia, who will at the same time allow corporate media to run their biased ads to swing voters in key states.

“If Democrats drop another fake Russian disinformation dossier on the President, the media will run wild with it, launching targeted ads at swing voters, and the President will be unable to respond. We know Big Tech hates Donald Trump, we know some of their employees have engaged in the leftist riots staged by Joe Biden’s supporters, and now we know they are silencing the President at the most important time of all.”

Facebook and the Biden campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Voting Drives

Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, called the ad restrictions “meaningless” in light of what he considers a much broader effort by Facebook to influence the election.

“The company will be manipulating voters on a large scale this year, sending them in just one direction,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

“The company’s stated policies are just distractions—misdirection. They held back in 2016; they’re not holding back this year. They know exactly who the undecided voters are, and they have multiple tools at their disposal for shifting the voting preferences of millions of those voters.”

Epstein has focused his research on the ability of online platforms to influence voters. His results showed that just by sorting search results, for instance, it’s possible to shift a major portion of undecided voters.

In his QZ op-ed last year, he warned that Facebook has no less than five avenues to surreptitiously sway the electorate, including through selective voter registration and “go out and vote” reminders.

Right on cue, Zuckerberg said he wants to help 4 million people to register and vote this year.

“In just three days, we already drove almost 24 million clicks to voter registration websites,” he said.

There’s no way to verify whether the effort favors one party over the other, Epstein said. However, with its overwhelmingly Democrat workforce and management, he said there’s also no way Facebook would undertake this effort if there was a chance it could help Trump’s reelection.

Content Policing

Zuckerberg said the company will “remove false claims about polling conditions” in consultation with state election authorities. Facebook is also removing “explicit misrepresentations about how or when to vote” and even “implicit misrepresentations about voting.”

Facebook will “attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud,” Zuckerberg said.

While the steps appear as a public service, it remains to be seen how they’ll be put in practice, said Churchwell.

Facebook’s content rules are in major part enforced by an army of tens of thousands of moderators who manually review individual posts. The moderators are guided by an internal rulebook that is much more detailed than the content policy released publicly, former Facebook moderator Ryan Hartwig previously told The Epoch Times.

In practice, the rules sometimes have caveats the public isn’t aware of, such as allowing “hate speech” or even threats against some individuals or groups, but not others.

Some contracted moderators were caught on hidden camera saying they were removing or not removing posts based on their own political preferences, regardless of what Facebook policies prescribed.

How the moderators will implement the new election-related rules is anybody’s guess.

“It could become very difficult to share genuine information about the election process on their platform, and that’s a shame,” Churchwell said.

Much of his concern boiled down to whether Facebook will allow criticism of universal mail-in voting, which has become a controversial issue.

Mail-In Voting

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this year. A major part of that shift, however, appears to stem from politics rather than health concerns.

Public health officials have assured that voting in person is safe as long as basic precautions are taken, such as keeping one’s distance from others. Only people who are at a high risk of suffering from serious effects from COVID-19, such as the elderly and those with underlying health problems, are encouraged to vote by absentee ballot.

Facebook appears to have acknowledged this point, saying in a Sept. 3 release that it will “remove posts that claim that people will get COVID-19 if they take part in voting.”

Prominent Democrats, meanwhile, have emphasized calls for universal mail-in voting amid the pandemic, while President Donald Trump has come out against it, saying it will lead to widespread voter fraud.

As a result, it appears mail-in voting has become a political statement, with the majority of Democrats saying they will vote by mail and a majority of Republicans saying they will vote in person, polls have shown.

There’s a difference between absentee voting and universal mail-in voting. In the former case, a registered voter formally requests a ballot from the election authorities and is then mailed one. In the latter case, ballots are automatically sent to all registered voters.

Democrats are generally saying universal mail-in voting has been used in several states with no major issues and it will allow more people to vote by making the process more convenient.

Republicans generally argue mass mail-in voting is ripe for fraud, such as via ballot destruction, ballot stealing, and ballot harvesting.

There’s anecdotal evidence of fraud in mail voting. Criminal cases have popped up across the nation in the past years. But comprehensive data on the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Trump tried to collect the data through his election integrity task force, but Democrat states have blocked it, citing impermissible federal intrusion.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation falls on the Republican side of the argument.

“We are critics, generally speaking, of mass mail voting,” Churchwell said.

He pointed to the foundation’s report last month on the June 2020 primaries in some Nevada counties, where a significant portion of mail-in ballots were returned undeliverable by the U.S. Postal Service.

“Will a censor at Facebook see that we are critiquing the mail voting system in Washoe County in Reno, Nevada, and say that we’re trying to delegitimize the concept of voting by mail because we’re raising alarm to how many ballots are being rejected?” he asked.

And fraud concerns are not the only issue.

Many states are just not equipped to handle a massive influx of mail-in ballots, Churchwell said.

Some states, such as Oregon and Washington, have spent years working out mail voting for their residents. It’s not reasonable to expect states that have relied mostly on in-person voting to be able to make the switch in months, he said.

States like Texas, Virginia, and New York, where people largely vote in person, “are now having to learn whole new skill set, contracts, logistics for said skill set, and then hope and pray that everything goes swimmingly on election night, because if not, they face a dearth of manpower that you’re going to need to get through extended counts and recounts,” he said.

States can’t expect to have armies of volunteers to stand side by side all day in close quarters to manually count and recount ballots, especially if another wave of COVID-19 hits.

If the primaries are any indication, Americans can expect delays, mistakes, and even disenfranchisement as a portion of the mailed ballots get lost, damaged, or mishandled. This is setting the country on a dangerous path, Churchwell said.

“The U.S. election system, it rests so much on the honor system among U.S. citizens that as soon as U.S. citizens start to in a critical mass question each other, their motives, and their actions inside the election system, and they do that because the elections keep taking longer and longer to resolve and announce the winner, you’re going to lose trust in that system and you’re going to lose future participation in that system,” he said.