More Equal Users: Decisions to Shield Celebrities Came From the Top, Facebook Whistleblower Recalls
The Wall Street Journal has kicked off a series of exposures concerning Facebook's covert programmes and policies. One of these is XCheck, which allows a certain type of users to do whatever they want on the platform without any ramifications. Facebook whistleblower Ryan Hartwig has shed further light on the company's practice.
Facebook shields the rich, famous, and powerful from its own community standards and rules, documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal show. The programme, which was internally referred to early on as "Shielding"
, but then rebranded as "Crosscheck" or "XCheck", reportedly protected 5.8 million people in 2020
to the WSJ. This programme makes some high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians, and journalists immune to enforcement actions and allows them to post rule-violating materials. The documents show that the programme gave selected VIPs free rein to harass other netizens or incite violence, violations which would typically lead to Facebook purges of ordinary users.
Whitelisting Rich & Powerful
"Facebook does have an AI censorship, Facebook does have algorithms where they can tweak and they can use their AI to feed certain types of content into our queues for review", explains Ryan Hartwig, Facebook whistleblower, co-author of “Behind the Mask of Facebook: A Whistleblower’s Shocking Story of Big Tech Bias and Censorship”, and founder of The Hartwig Foundation for Free Speech.
Hartwig was a human content moderator and part of his job was to train the artificial intelligence to recognise certain things from photos. The Silicon Valley giant's artificial intelligence did inject certain jobs into their queues, according to the whistleblower.
He explains that if Facebook wants to protect Greta Thunberg, then it can "inject those certain keywords and then they'll force us to review jobs related to Greta Thunberg". "That is what I witnessed and documented", Hartwig notes.
"Facebook was our client, so I work for Cognizant, so those decisions come from the top", Hartwig says. "Like their decision to protect Greta Thunberg - that came from Facebook's policy team. They can manually make decisions about who to protect, so they'll protect Thunberg, they can protect like CNN host Don Lemon, and they give him a newsworthy exception to talk about how white males are terror threats – so that's an example of Facebook breaking their own rules".
Facebook's 2019 confidential internal review warned that the company is not actually doing what it says it does publicly, qualifying these actions as nothing short of "a breach of trust". Nevertheless, according to the WSJ, Facebook opted to conceal the truth and mislead both its users and its own Oversight Board about the programme's features.
In June 2021, the Silicon Valley giant told the Oversight Board that its system for high-profile users was used in "a small number of decisions". Responding to the WSJ report, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said that the company is working to phase out the practice of whitelisting, adding that “a lot of this internal material is outdated information".
The documents describing the XCheck programme is just part of a bulky collection of materials concerning the tech giant obtained by the WSJ. The media outlet pointed out that in addition to internal Facebook documents, it had also conducted interviews with dozens of current and former employees of the company. The WSJ made it clear that it will proceed with further exposures.
There is more to the tech giant's flawed policies than meets the eye, WSJ investigators say, claiming that despite knowing the platform's ill effects in areas including teen mental health, political discourse, and human trafficking, the company did not fix them.
The WSJ further revealed that at least part of the documents in question have already been handed over to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to Congress by an individual seeking whistleblower protection.
However, Hartwig does not believe that the US Congress will exert considerable pressure on the tech giant. Indeed, previously, then-President Donald Trump called upon US members of Congress to strip Facebook of its Section 230 protections
for censorship and apparent political bias, but to no avail.
"Right now they [the US government] are reopening some antitrust lawsuits into Facebook", says the whistleblower. "Honestly, right now, I don't think there's going to be any repercussions, because our Congress is not acting against Facebook. So I don't see the immediate consequences".