A little over two weeks after a Wall Street Journal report revealed Facebook had an internal list of individuals who are not subject to the company’s own rules on what content could be posted, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration opened an investigation into the social media giant for possible election manipulation.
In a letter to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, DeSantis expressed concern that Facebook’s “cross check” or “XCheck” whitelisting system could have violated Florida’s election laws.
The first reporting on XCheck appeared on Sept. 13 as part of a Journal exposé on the practices of the world’s largest social media platform.
While it was originally “intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists,” the Journal’s Jeff Horwitz wrote, XCheck now renders some users immune from the normal enforcement process used by the platform. Others can post content that violates Facebook guidelines pending a manual review, one that often never happens.
“In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook,” Horwitz reported. “Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up ‘pedophile rings,’ and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum ‘animals,’ according to the documents.”
A 2019 internal review by Facebook said the program was riddled with favoritism that was “not publicly defensible.”
That’s all distasteful, but here’s where it potentially collides with Florida’s election laws:
“While the program included most government officials, it didn’t include all candidates for public office, at times effectively granting incumbents in elections an advantage over challengers,” Horwitz reported. “The discrepancy was most prevalent in state and local races, the documents show, and employees worried Facebook could be subject to accusations of favoritism.”
NEW FROM @RonDeSantisFL ??
“If this new report is true, Facebook has violated FL law to put its thumb on the scale of numerous state & local races.
Floridians deserve to know how much this corporate titan has influenced our elections.”
READ MORE ⬇️https://t.co/vFPUbawfqn
— Team DeSantis (@teamrondesantis) September 27, 2021
“It’s no secret that Big Tech censors have long enforced their own rules inconsistently,” DeSantis said in a news release Monday.
“If this new report is true, Facebook has violated Florida law to put its thumb on the scale of numerous state and local races. Floridians deserve to know how much this corporate titan has influenced our elections. That is why I am directing Secretary Lee to use all legal means to uncover violations of Florida’s election laws. The thought of Facebook clandestinely manipulating elections is an affront to the basic principles of our republic. We the people have the right to choose our representatives, whether or not Silicon Valley approves.”
In a letter to Lee, DeSantis authorized the secretary of state to “use all legal means to uncover any such violations, including but not limited to, issuing subpoenas, conducting witness interviews, reviewing all available information and consulting with law enforcement.”
“The thought of technology companies clandestinely manipulating elections is an affront to the basic principles of our republic,” the letter concluded. “Floridians deserve to have faith that their elections are fair and free from intrusion by Big Tech monopolies like Facebook.”
I am authorizing @FLSecofState and the Florida Department of State to open an investigation into Facebook’s alleged election interference through its whitelisting program.
Floridians deserve to know how much Big Tech has influenced our elections. pic.twitter.com/rmGmZ6BK6T
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) September 27, 2021
DeSantis is, of course, thought to be a potential challenger in the 2024 presidential race and Big Tech — and its leftist bias — has been one of his big issues. He’s also proven himself to be willing to stand up to President Joe Biden and has the mainstream media target on his back to prove it.
DeSantis was one of the chief proponents of a Florida bill that created penalties for deplatforming candidates and politicians.
“This session, we took action to ensure that ‘We the People’ — real Floridians across the Sunshine State — are guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley elites,” DeSantis said in a May statement when he signed the bill.
“Many in our state have experienced censorship and other tyrannical behavior firsthand in Cuba and Venezuela. If Big Tech censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable.”
DeSantis did not specify how the existence of the XCheck system could violate state law, but Monday’s news release raised the specter of election manipulation being raised to a disturbing level.
“If the Wall Street Journal report is accurate, Facebook has created a privileged class of speakers and has empowered them to manipulate our elections with impunity,” the release stated.
“Even more disturbing, these elite users on Facebook’s ‘whitelist’ were allegedly selected by the tech giant behind closed doors. The selection process, scope, and real-world influence of the whitelist is concealed from the public and known only to Facebook. If true, this process may have provided a benefit to incumbent elected politicians over their challengers in state and local elections.”
And that could make a Florida investigation a nightmare for those election meddlers and manipulators — and the politicians who benefit from it.
According to local outlet Florida Politics, provisions of a bill DeSantis signed would limit the length of time platforms could ban politicians or candidates. Companies that violate the law could face fines of up to $250,000 per day for cases involving candidates for statewide office and $25,000 per day in fines for local candidates.
“When you deplatform the president of the United States, but you let [Iranian leader] Ayatollah Khamenei talk about killing Jews, that is wrong,” DeSantis said in news conference after signing the bill, according to Fox News.
It’s said that one would be ill-advised to “mess with Texas.”
Lawmakers in Arizona added their state to that list with the recently concluded audit of the November election in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populated. And while the audit did not turn up conclusive evidence that would change the result of Democrat Joe Biden winning the state, though questions abound, it did put the political world on notice that state lawmakers are willing to fight to preserve election integrity.
While the issues in Florida are separate, DeSantis is taking a page from the Arizona strategy — putting the world of Big Tech on notice that his state is willing to fight to preserve its election independence.
Whether or not Facebook’s whitelisting practices violated Florida law remains to be seen, but an investigation is a positive first step, given what we know so far.
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