With its “cross check” program, Facebook knowingly allowed right-wing politicians and media personalities to abuse its platform — just to avoid bad press
Right-wing personalities have repeatedly flouted Facebook policies about COVID-19, vaccines, and the 2020 election. Now it turns out Facebook was giving prominent users blanket exemptions to such rules.
Update (1/14/22): Following The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, Facebook asked its Oversight Board to review its cross-check system. As part of the review process, the board requested public comments from those with expertise on various aspects of the system. On January 14, Media Matters submitted a comment to the board, offering, in part, the following guidance:
The Board has asked respondents for comments on Meta’s cross-check system and recommendations to ensure that it is neutral and free of political and other biases. However, there will be no neutral cross-check system so long as Meta continues to prioritize and incentivize growth and positive publicity over solving serious issues that plague its platforms — including misinformation and hate speech that has caused real-world harm. Given the immense scale of Meta, with more than 3 billion people using its platforms, and its vast societal influence, the company should be dedicated to minimizing the risk of harm, both on and off the platform.
Our full comment can be accessed here.
Facebook has allowed right-wing politicians and media personalities likely covered under its cross check exemption program -- from former President Donald Trump to right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro to Fox host Tucker Carlson -- to promote harmful misinformation related to COVID-19, vaccines, and the 2020 election, even though it violates Facebook policies.
On September 13, The Wall Street Journal published the first in a series of articles based on internal Facebook documents. According to the reporting, the program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was “initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists.” But the program grew to include at least 5.8 million users in 2020 -- “pretty much anyone regularly in the media or who has a substantial online following, including film stars, cable talk-show hosts, academics and online personalities with large followings” -- and it protected public figures who used the platform for harassment or incitement of violence.
Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.
This reporting on the program underscores a recurring problem at Facebook. The company consistently prioritizes public opinion and press coverage over actions addressing its problems. Among other things, this approach manifests in capitulation and preferential treatment to right-wing pages to avoid unsubstantiated claims that it is censoring right-wing accounts. (Media Matters and others have demonstrated again and again that no such bias or censorship exists. In fact, some right-wing personalities who post sensational and misleading content earned significantly more engagement in 2020 and 2021 than in previous years.)
For standard users, posts that incite violence or contain misleading content are considered violations of the platform’s policy. For high profile users, Facebook often delayed action on such content or didn't take it at all. Some were even given “whitelist” status, offering blanket exemptions from enforcement. And in some cases, Facebook even asked fact-checking partners to retroactively change their findings on posts from high-profile accounts.
Media Matters has identified numerous harmful and misleading posts -- and others that also appear to violate Facebook’s policies -- from right-wing politicians and media personalities who were likely covered under Facebook’s XCheck program. They include Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., Republican members of Congress, and right-wing media personalities Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, Matt Walsh, Dan Bongino, Tucker Carlson, and Terrence K. Williams.
Hundreds of Trump’s posts seemingly incite violence or contain COVID-19 or election misinformation
There are multiple posts on the former president's page that seemingly incite violence; altogether, they have earned over 2.2 million interactions. According to the Journal, one of these posts, in which Trump wrote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” reportedly scored 90 out of 100 from Facebook’s automated system, indicating a high likelihood it violated the platform’s rules. “For a normal user post, such a score would result in the content being removed as soon as a single person reported it to Facebook,” the Journal wrote.
Despite the clear violation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally decided not to remove the post. (Twitter hid Trump’s tweet with similar language for glorifying violence.)
Here are a few other examples of Trump’s posts that seemingly violate Facebook’s policies:
In a review of Trump’s posts from January 1, 2020, to January 6, 2021, Media Matters identified over 500 posts that contained misinformation about COVID-19 and over 360 that attempted to undermine trust in the U.S. election process.
Republican members of Congress pushed election misinformation and promoted “Stop the Steal”
In a review of posts from members of Congress between Election Day and January 13, Media Matters found that some members of the “sedition caucus” — the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the election results after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol — used either their official or unofficial Facebook pages (or both) to promote election misinformation about voter fraud and “Stop the Steal” events.
In fact, these members mentioned keywords related to “Stop the Steal” a total of 193 times on Facebook. Members pushing “Stop the Steal” include Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).
The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, and Matt Walsh earned millions of interactions and views on misleading posts
Right-wing media outlet The Daily Wire and its media personalities often flout Facebook policy. Ben Shapiro, who frequently posts sensational stories and misleading content on Facebook, earned over 924 million interactions on roughly 114,000 posts in roughly four years -- between January 1, 2017, and March 22, 2021. Notably, his engagement on Facebook in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 significantly increased compared with other years, even though Facebook claims to downrank sensational content and pages that consistently post this type of content.
Candace Owens and Matt Walsh similarly post sensational and misleading content, with Owens earning millions of views on many of her videos. For example, Owens' video about last spring’s protests against police brutality following George Floyd's killing has been viewed more than 95 million times, and her February video with the caption “Everything you were told about the ‘Capitol Riot’ is a lie” has 8.1 million views.
Notably, Shapiro, Owens, and Walsh have used their Facebook pages to push harmful COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, often downplaying the virus and the effectiveness of masks and the vaccine.
Fox host Tucker Carlson has earned millions of views on posts with vaccine misinformation
Tucker Carlson has used his show’s Facebook page to share segments in which he pushes vaccine misinformation.
In one of these anti-vaccine segments, from April 13, Carlson went as far as speculating that public health experts still recommend people wear masks and practice social distancing after being vaccinated because “maybe it doesn't work and they’re simply not telling you that.” Media Matters found that between April 13 and 16, a clip of that segment on his show's Facebook page was the most shared video among political news pages, with roughly 43,000 shares. The video was also viewed more than 1 million times. Another clip of the segment was also among the top 10 most shared videos from political pages between April 13 and 16. This video was shared over 24,000 times and viewed roughly 675,000 times.
Donald Trump Jr. earned millions of views on posts with misleading information on COVID-19 mitigation measures and other sensational content
The Wall Street Journal report noted that Trump’s family members are covered under the XCheck program, including Donald Trump Jr., who frequently posted sensational content such as a video captioned “WATCH: Joe Biden Short Circuits On Live TV - Wow.” These videos typically earn millions of views.
Notably, Trump Jr. also earns high views and engagement on posts undermining COVID-19, mitigation measures, and vaccines.
Other right-wing personalities, such as Dan Bongino and Terrence K. Williams, posted election and COVID-19 misinformation
Right-wing media personality Dan Bongino’s Facebook page follows a similar pattern as Ben Shapiro’s, with Bongino’s engagement drastically increasing in 2020 and 2021, according to Media Matters' review of CrowdTangle data. Bongino’s page earned over 351 million interactions in roughly the last four years -- between January 1, 2017, and March 22, 2021. In 2020, he earned more than 10 times the engagement of 2019.
Bongino, along with other right-wing media personalities such as Terrence K. Williams, have in particular earned high engagement on sensational and misleading posts about the election and the January 6 insurrection.
Bongino and Williams have also earned substantial engagement on posts undermining COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.