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It looks like it’s going to be another controversial election year in 2022. We’ve already had some hotly-contested primaries, a dramatic show trial involving the events of January 6, and a raid of a former U.S. president’s home. The good news in all this is that social media giant Meta says that it is ready for whatever might happen next.
How Meta Is Planning for the 2022 Midterms and Beyond
According to the company’s President of Global Affairs, Meta has already formed 40+ teams consisting of hundreds of people, all to prevent election malfeasance on social media. In 2021 alone, Meta says, it spent more than $5 billion on what it calls “safety and security.” The primary goal is to prevent voter interference (by both foreign and domestic elements), with the secondary goal being to connect people with reliable information. Meta would also like to provide complete transparency about ads appearing on its platform.
On the surface, of course, it all sounds great. Meta has learned a lot of lessons from previous elections. It has improved the ability of its AI algorithms to detect misinformation. It has new tools to prevent hate speech from being spread on its platform. And it has partnered with law enforcement agencies when needed to ensure that it can take swift and direct action to guarantee free speech. And it has created a very concise of summary of everything that it is doing to prepare for the elections. What could possibly go wrong?
Can Meta tilt the scales of an election?
While Meta can do a great job of preventing a lot of the obvious bad stuff from ever appearing online or getting shared with others, what about all the content that exists in the gray zone?
For example, it might be easy to crack down on certain forms of obvious hate speech. But if President Joseph Biden refers to Trump supporters as “semi-fascists” or “racists” or “white supremacists,” does that mean Meta can simply shut down any content coming from a certain political party?
And that’s where things get really dangerous, because it is quite possible that Meta could inadvertently tip the scales in any important election. We’ve already seen how the scandal around Hunter Biden’s laptop has evolved — it’s morphed from “disinformation” to “misinformation” to “fact” over a period of 24 months. And we’ve already seen how major law enforcement agencies such as the FBI can be used to intimidate a particular politician.
Is Meta a platform or a publisher?
At the end of the day, it all comes down to whether Meta is a platform or a publisher. If it is a platform, then it is not allowed to favor any particular party, affiliation or ideology. It is simply the “public square” where a variety of views are shared with the community. However, if it is a publisher, then much of its legal immunity defense may no longer be valid. Just as individuals can sue a newspaper or media outlet if it feels it has been injured or wronged, individuals should be able to take legal action against Meta.
At one time, Facebook might have been able to argue that it was simply a platform, and that it bears no responsibility for what happens online. That defense might have worked in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the 2018 midterms, or the 2020 U.S. presidential election. But this is 2022, and so much has happened over the past six years that Meta will have a lot to answer for if this next election cycle ends up being as controversial as the previous election cycles.