TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee and the Division of Elections to investigate Facebook for election violations, based on reporting by the Wall Street Journal that the governor says revealed an “egregious double standard” in how the social media company disciplines users.
In a letter sent to Sec. Lee, DeSantis directed the Division of Elections to investigate the way Facebook enforces its sitewide content and standards, particularly the way it “created a shadow list of users who are immune” to the company enforcement guidelines, including fact checking of incumbent politicians.
A statement from the governor’s office announcing the directive calls the report by the Journal a “bombshell” and says that Facebook uses its influence to affect “numerous state and local races by exempting elite users from Facebook’s own rules.” Those elite users are on what the governor calls a “whitelist” that creates two types of Facebook users in the letter: the privileged and “those who are not.”
Largely, DeSantis bases his directive on the reporting by the Wall Street Journal, specifically an article titled “Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That’s Exempt.” It is one of several recent publications in the Journal’s “Facebook Files,” a series of investigative reports focused on the social media company and tech giant.
“It’s no secret that Big Tech censors have long enforced their own rules inconsistently,” said DeSantis in a release. “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.”
This is not the first time Florida’s governor has waded into a political fight with social media companies. Earlier in 2021, the Florida Legislature and governor passed and signed a new law that was a “Big Tech crackdown,” aimed at preventing the so-called deplatforming of Florida political candidates during elections.
The bill, now law, SB 7072, authorizes the Florida Dept. of Legal Affairs to investigate potential violations under the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, and allows the Department to bring penalties for those violations, according to the Florida Senate.
The reporting by the Wall Street Journal, based on internal Facebook documents that the publication obtained, show that the company has a system which exempts their high-profile users from being subject to its rules and policies through a program called Cross-Check or XCheck.
Facebook says they made multiple efforts to ensure incumbents and challengers in elections federal and non-federal received the same protections from the program.
The release from the governor’s office says that if the report by the Journal is correct, the company has “created a privileged class of speakers and empowered them to manipulate our elections with impunity.” The statement from the governor also takes shots at Facebook’s fact-checking system, known for flagging content for review by third-party organizations to fight the spread of misinformation on company platforms Facebook and Instagram.
“The focus of this fact-checking program is identifying and addressing viral misinformation,” the company says. “Particularly clear hoaxes that have no basis in fact.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the company “shields millions of VIP users” from the “normal enforcement process.” The user list includes celebrities, politicians and others, who are allegedly free to post content exempt from moderation that would normally suspend or ban an average user.
Following calls for action due to the reporting by the Wall Street Journal and issues with the psychological effects of Instagram on younger users, Facebook put Instagram for kids 13 or younger on hold Monday. Reporting by the Associated Press says it was to give the tech company time to address content and access concerns.
A Facebook spokesperson reached out to 8 On Your Side, providing commentary on the XCheck system detailed in the Wall Street Journal’s reporting.
The cross check system was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding. This could include activists raising awareness of instances of violence or journalists reporting from conflict zones. Facebook itself identified the issues with cross check and has been working to address them. We’ve made investments, built a dedicated team, and have been redesigning cross check to improve how the system operates.Statement from Facebook Spokesperson Drew Pusateri