Back in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg claimed he cared about making sure Facebook wasn’t used to undermine democracy.
“The most important thing I care about right now is making sure no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” the Facebook CEO said during a marathon five-hour testimony to Congress in April of that year, where he was grilled about how the Kremlin weaponized Facebook during the 2016 election to spread disinformation and chaos.
Fast-forward to 2022, and Zuckerberg is apparently more concerned about money and the metaverse now.
As the crucial midterm elections approach in the U.S., a pair of new reports give credence to the claim that Zuckerberg now cares less about securing elections and more about his shiny new project.
The New York Times reported Thursday that Zuckerberg no longer meets regularly with his election team anymore and his top priority is, instead, the metaverse project. The report also reveals that the number of employees dedicated to monitoring election threats has been gutted from 300 full-time members in 2020 to just 60 today.
As an example of how this new outlook could allow election conspiracies to spread unchecked on the platform, the New York Times pointed out that Dinesh D’Souza’s conspiracy-filled and debunked film 2000 Mules racked up 430,000 engagements on Facebook this month.
Tracking how disinformation spreads on Facebook can be difficult, but a tool called CrowdTangle, which Facebook purchased in 2018, has become a critical way for researchers and journalists to track new disinformation trends around elections.
Facebook, which has historically been averse to sharing information with researchers, looks to be phasing out this tool now too.
The shutdown of the CrowdTangle began last year with most former employees leaving or being assigned roles in other parts of Meta. In January of this year, Meta paused the ability of new users to register for CrowdTangle, a hold that’s still in place. No new features have been added in the last 16 months and researchers have reported that the tool isn’t working as expected.
This means that there is now very little support for the many organizations that use CrowdTangle, a tool that has also been used by journalists, researchers, academics, and human rights organizations in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Facebook has been accused of facilitating genocide.
Researchers fear things will get worse in November.
A spokesperson for Meta told Bloomberg that CrowdTangle would work for the 2022 midterms just as it did for the 2020 presidential elections, adding that the company has plans to make “even more valuable” tools for researchers, though she didn’t say when those tools would be available.
But, as one expert pointed out, the replacement system proposed by Facebook so far is not up to snuff.
“The system proposed to replace CrowdTangle is—so far—terrible,” Dr. Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics, tweeted Thursday. “But most importantly, it's inaccessible to journalists, who are the bulwark for public accountability and democracy. If I can access CrowdTangle and journalists can't, we all lose.”
The U.S. midterms are just one election taking place this year. Across the globe, there are dozens of others that remain vulnerable to disinformation shared on Facebook. And aside from elections, there are numerous other events which CrowdTangle could be used to track how dangerous narratives are being shared online.
“This tool was crucial to the analysis of COVID-19 disinformation, threats from the Boogaloo bois following the death of George Floyd, hybrid threats etc.,” Marc-André Argentino, an extremism researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University, tweeted on Thursday.
“So many colleagues, journalists, and researchers benefit greatly from CrowdTangle.” Facebook still has almost 3 billion monthly users, and for hundreds of millions of Americans, Facebook is still the primary way they communicate online and their main source of news and information.
And with the midterms approaching, Facebook and Zuckerberg’s focus on making money in the Metaverse is a very worrying development.