Facebook executives were reportedly concerned that further promoting accurate voting and election information to Spanish-language WhatsApp users would not be seen as “politically neutral”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the Committee on Rules and Administration with oversight over federal elections and campaign finance law, and Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seeking information on WhatsApp’s efforts to counter Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation on the platform in advance of the 2020 election.
This letter follows the release of the “Facebook Papers,” internal Facebook documents disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, which indicate that last year, company leaders blocked additional measures to provide reliable Spanish-language voting and election information to WhatsApp users because they thought they could be seen as political in nature.
“While we understand the unique challenges of countering the spread of disinformation on encrypted messaging apps that allow users to communicate privately, we are concerned by the reports that the plans developed at WhatsApp were blocked because of the view that further promoting access to accurate voting information could be perceived as political in nature,” the senators wrote.
They continued: “WhatsApp’s response to misinformation and disinformation is especially important because ahead of the 2020 elections, experts warned that Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation was rapidly spreading on the platform. Much of this disinformation targeted users based on their culture and heritage with divisive content and aiming to stoke racial divisions. While misinformation and disinformation campaigns targeted Spanish-speaking voters through social media during the 2016 elections, reports indicate the problem became ‘exponentially worse’ since then and that Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation ‘flourished’ online around Election Day last year.”
Klobuchar and Luján have been leaders in the fight against misinformation and disinformation online. In July, they introduced legislation to hold digital platforms accountable for the spread of health-related misinformation online during public health emergencies.
This legislation followed a letter they sent to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg highlighting a report issued by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which found that approximately 65 percent of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter can be attributed to the “Disinformation Dozen” – 12 individuals who play leading roles in spreading digital disinformation about coronavirus vaccines. In light of these findings, Klobuchar and Luján called on Dorsey and Zuckerberg to remove these individuals from their social media platforms, which resulted in Twitter taking action against six users and issuing one permanent account suspension and Facebook taking action against several users.
In January, Klobuchar and Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Gary Peters (D-MI) sent a letter to Dorsey, Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki calling on them to combat the spread of false and misleading information related to coronavirus vaccines.
Last year, Klobuchar and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) led a letter to Google to improve its ad policies and combat election-related disinformation and voter suppression following reports indicating that the company profited from political ads that spread voting and election disinformation. Klobuchar had previously led 16 of her colleagues in a letter to Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, and YouTube urging executives to take measures to stop voting-related misinformation and disinformation following knowledge that Russia was attempting to influence and undermine the election through social media.
Klobuchar also joined Peters and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) last year to introduce the COVID-19 Misinformation & Disinformation Task Force Act, which would create a COVID-19 Misinformation & Disinformation Task Force led by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA). The Task Force would consist of representatives from a variety of federal agencies and would be responsible for creating an awareness campaign to help inform the public of the risks of misinformation and disinformation related to the pandemic, including explanations of how foreign adversaries may use the pandemic to change American’s opinions or cause panic.
Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below.
We write to express concern and request information following recent news reports indicating that Facebook’s leadership blocked certain plans at WhatsApp – the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app – to further promote reliable Spanish-language voting, election, and poll worker information in advance of the 2020 election based on concerns that such plans would not be seen as “politically neutral.” In particular, we write to request information on the events outlined in these reports and on WhatsApp’s efforts to counter Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation on the platform.
Hispanic and Latino Americans registered and voted in record numbers for the 2020 presidential election, accounting for approximately one in ten votes cast. At the same time, eligible Hispanic and Latino voters still registered to vote and voted at lower rates as compared to voters of other ethnicities. WhatsApp, which has more than 75 million monthly users in the United States, is particularly popular among Hispanic and Latino Americans, over half of whom use WhatsApp and who make up 13 percent of all eligible U.S. voters.
Recent news reports indicate that leaders at Facebook stopped efforts at WhatsApp to further promote reliable Spanish-language voting, election, and poll worker information last year similar to the information provided by Facebook’s Voting Information Center. The Voting Information Center, which Facebook created in August 2020, included factual information in multiple languages including Spanish about how to register to vote, cast a ballot, and sign up to be a poll worker. It was described by the company as “a one-stop shop to give people in the U.S. the tools and information they need to make their voices heard at the ballot box.” While WhatsApp’s policy provided users the option to report problematic content in messages and allowed them to access information about voting through an automated chat function that reacted to users’ inquiries, Facebook executives were reportedly concerned that other proposed measures to increase access to accurate voting information for Spanish-language WhatsApp users would not be seen as “politically neutral.” While we understand the unique challenges of countering the spread of disinformation on encrypted messaging apps that allow users to communicate privately, we are concerned by the reports that the plans developed at WhatsApp were blocked because of the view that further promoting access to accurate voting information could be perceived as political in nature.
WhatsApp’s response to misinformation and disinformation is especially important because ahead of the 2020 elections, experts warned that Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation was rapidly spreading on the platform. Much of this disinformation targeted users based on their culture and heritage with divisive content and aiming to stoke racial divisions. While misinformation and disinformation campaigns targeted Spanish-speaking voters through social media during the 2016 elections, reports indicate the problem became “exponentially worse” since then and that Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation “flourished” online around Election Day last year.
In light of these reports, we ask that you respond to the following questions by November 12, 2021:
- Do you agree that all Americans, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or language preference, should have access to accurate voting and election information?
- Was there a proposal to promote a Spanish-language version of the Voting Information Center to WhatsApp users or otherwise provide Spanish-speaking WhatsApp users with increased access to reliable information about the 2020 election?
- Did any executive at Facebook or WhatsApp express concern regarding any proposal to increase access to or further promote voting and election information in Spanish on the basis that they would not be “politically neutral” or that providing this information would be inadvisable for any other reasons? If so, did these concerns play a role in any decisions about what information or services WhatsApp or Facebook provided in Spanish in advance of the 2020 election?
- In advance of the 2020 election, did any employee at Facebook or WhatsApp approve any project to provide voting, election, or poll worker information that was not simultaneously available in both English and Spanish?
- In light of experts’ warnings about the spread of Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation before Election Day, did staff at WhatsApp reconsider any of its existing policies, develop new proposals, or take additional actions to counter election-related misinformation or disinformation?
Thank you for your attention to this important issue.
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