Facebook’s update suggests the rules don’t take effect until late October.
WASHINGTON — Facebook executives said Tuesday the social media company is ready to implement “break-glass measures” to restrict content on its platforms if civil unrest and violence erupt following the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The preparations come as Facebook has taken more aggressive steps ahead of the 2020 election to limit disinformation on the social network than in 2016, when Russian operatives sought to further inflame tensions over hot-button topics such as race and immigration.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs, told USA TODAY the company has engaged in meticulous “scenario-planning” on election outcomes that range from “benign scenarios to some extremely worrying ones.” He said Facebook has used knowledge gleaned from 200 elections around the world in the last four years to crack down on election interference and misinformation.
“We have developed break-glass tools which do allow us to – if for a temporary period of time – effectively throw a blanket over a lot of content that would freely circulate on our platforms,” Clegg said, “in order to play our role as responsible as we can to prevent that content, wittingly or otherwise, from aiding and abetting those who want to continue with the violence and civil strife that we’re seeing on the ground.”
He added: “We very much hope we won’t have to. And it would have to be a highly worrisome and abnormal situation to do so.”
More: Facebook won’t allow new political ads the week before the November presidential election
Clegg declined to discuss what the measures might look like because he said it wouldn’t be helpful to “elicit a greater sense of anxiety than we hope will be warranted.”
He said Facebook deployed “break-glass measures” during recent elections in other countries, singling out last year’s India election in which he said Facebook moved quickly to “aggressively limit” the number of messages a user could forward. He said the company has turned to the tools when “the situation on the ground is spiraling into a chaotic and violent form of civil strife.”
Stoking fears of a contested U.S. election, President Donald Trump has warned repeatedly the November election will be the “greatest election disaster in history.” The president has accused Democrats of seeking to rig the election through mail-in ballots, which he’s slammed without evidence as being more fraudulent than voting in person. Trump has complained about the weeks it might take election officialsto count all absentee ballots, and he’s not been clear whether he would accept election results.
A study from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found nearly 1 out of 4 voters – 22% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans – said some amount of “violence” would be justified if the candidate they oppose wins the White House.
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Seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook this month strengthened measures to prevent interference and misinformation from Trump and other political candidates including barring new political ads in the week before Election Day.
After the election, Facebook says it will crack down on any attempt by candidates to claim false victories or delegitimize the results by directing users to accurate information on the election results.
“We will inform users with a very visible label on top of Donald Trump’s post – if what he’s trying to do is claim premature victory – saying that the election results are not yet finalized,” Clegg said
More: Russia ‘very active’ in 2020 election; antifa not a terror group, FBI director testifies
FBI Director Chris Wray told lawmakers last week that Russia remains “very active” in its effort to disrupt the vote, primarily by denigrating Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Four years ago, Russia waged similar efforts to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
“The biggest difference between 2016 and 2020 is that in 2016, Russian actors were caught doing this after the election,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook. “This year they’ve been caught months and years in advance.”
Gleicher said Facebook has identified 100 networks of “coordinated, inauthenticated behavior” designed to deceive voters in the past three-plus years – information that the company makes publicly available. He said Facebook has identified four separate networks in the past six months linked to Russian actors.
He said actors looking to interfere have gotten more creative but he believes they are less effective today than in 2016.
Rather than creating fake Facebook accounts, he said more Russian-lined actors are targeting activists to help them amplify their message or, in a new trend, targeting journalists to push op-eds under fake names.
“There are no guarantees in security,” Gleicher said. “That’s very important to say. But all the patterns that we are seeing, all the evidence we’re seeing, is we are catching them much faster and it’s much, much harder for them than it used to be.”
More: Facebook election turnout: Company says it has already registered 2.5 million Americans to vote
Clegg said Facebook’s heightened efforts against Russian disinformation this election are “unrecognizably different” than the approach before the 2016 election. As a result, he said he believes the bigger challenge is combating internal players trying to spread “disinformation, hate and polarization.” The company said the majority of takedowns globally tend to be domestic including several recently.
“It’s arguably a bigger challenge this time around than the foreign and Russian interference was last time,” Clegg said.
Facebook has been less aggressive in policing social media posts from the president than Twitter, which has flagged tweets for being factually inaccurate or glorifying violence. That posture has set off a firestorm of criticism inside and outside the company, but founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has held firm in his statements that Facebook is a free speech zone and that the public needs to see newsworthy posts from political candidates.
Defending Facebook’s efforts, Clegg said pointed to the company’s Voter Information Center, which he billed as “the most ambitious attempt of its kind anywhere, publicly or privately.” He said the company has helped registered 2.5 million people voters and recruit thousands to sign up as poll workers.
“There will always be people who will say that Facebook doesn’t do enough,” Clegg said. “That’s always the case. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that we’re in anyway complacent that we’re doing enough. We’re always striving to do more.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
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