The Republican political operatives who call the shots at Facebook

This is the online version of the Popular Information newsletter. You can get independent accountability journalism in your inbox every week. Sign up here:

(From left to right: Facebook’s Joel Kaplan, Katie Harbath, and Kevin Martin) 

In recent months, Facebook has repeatedly taken actions that benefit Republicans and the right-wing. For example:

  • Facebook altered the language of its advertising policy to allow political candidates to lie in Facebook ads. The decision benefits Trump, who is spending millions on ads featuring claims that have been debunked by Facebook's third-party fact-checkers.

  • Facebook recruited the Daily Caller, a far-right site founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, to become an official fact-checker for Facebook. The decision was made even though the Daily Caller has a history of inaccurate reporting targeting Democrats. No liberal publication was added to Facebook's fact-checking program.

  • Facebook hired former Republican Senator Jon Kyl to produce a report on whether Facebook is biased against conservatives. Facebook did not make any effort to study whether the platform had any bias against liberals. 

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited right-wing pundits to his home to discuss "partnerships" and "free speech." Invitees included Tucker Carlson, who recently said that immigrants were making America "dirtier," and Brent Bozell, who said President Obama looked like a "skinny ghetto crackhead." Zuckerberg does not appear to have met with any liberal pundits. 

Why is this happening? Popular Information spoke with three former Facebook employees to find out. All of them pointed to the leadership in Facebook's powerful DC office. 

"Everyone in power is a Republican," one former Facebook employee based in the DC office told Popular Information. The person requested anonymity because they are still employed in the tech industry. 

Indeed, the three top leaders of Facebook's DC office all have extensive backgrounds in Republican politics: Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan; Vice President for U.S. Public Policy Kevin Martin; and Public Policy Director for Global Elections Katie Harbath. 

"Decisions are made to benefit Republicans because they are paranoid about their reputation among conservative Republicans, particularly Trump," the former Facebook employee said.  The other former Facebook employees did not agree to be quoted. 

Facebook declined to respond to a detailed set of questions about the operation of Facebook's DC office. "We’re not going to have a comment to share," a Facebook spokesman told Popular Information. 

The man behind Kavanaugh

The most powerful man in Facebook's DC office is Joel Kaplan, who is in charge of the company's public policy globally. Kaplan, who was hired by Facebook in 2011, was deputy White House chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration.  

Kaplan landed in the spotlight after serious allegations of sexual harassment emerged against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In a show of support, Kaplan sat behind Kavanaugh during the Senate hearing about the allegations, angering many Facebook employees. 

"Our leadership team recognizes that they’ve made mistakes handling the events of the last week and we’re grateful for all the feedback from our employees," Facebook said in response to the controversy, seemingly acknowledging it was a mistake for Kaplan to attend the hearing. But after Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, Kaplan threw him a party

Today, Kaplan serves as an advocate for right-wing sites on Facebook. "Any time there was an issue with Breitbart or Daily Caller, Joel made the decision, and he always acted to protect them," the former Facebook employee told Popular Information.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Kaplan "pushed to partner with right-wing news site The Daily Caller’s fact-checking division" after conservatives complained that other fact-checkers, like the Associated Press, had a liberal bias. Kaplan overruled other executives in the DC office who noted that the Daily Caller frequently published misinformation. Kaplan also pushed to maintain Breitbart's "whitelist" status on Facebook, which allowed the publication to evade Facebook's rules on hate speech.  

A GOP delegate and also Facebook's Director for Global Elections 

Katie Harbath, who is in charge of Facebook's election policy, broke the news to the Biden campaign that it would allow the Trump campaign ad to run an ad featuring a claim that had been debunked by Facebook's own fact-checkers. "Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is," Harbath wrote in a letter. 

Harbath was defending Facebook's policy to allow politicians to lie in ads, which was first reported in Popular Information. The decision benefits the Trump campaign, which is spending millions on Facebook ads that include obvious falsehoods. 

She is also a longtime Republican political operative. Before joining Facebook in 2011, Harbath was the chief digital strategist for the Republican National Committee. She was also the digital director for Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign. Her work in Republican politics dates back until at least 2003.

Harbath didn't give up her involvement in Republican Party politics after joining Facebook. In 2014, she was an official delegate to the Virginia Republican Convention, where she supported the nomination of her former boss, Ed Gillespie, for Senate.

In her role at Facebook, she also assisted the Gillespie campaign on Facebook strategy, according to sources familiar with her work. When Gillespie lost by less than one point -- a much closer margin than expected -- she touted an article which highlighted Gillespie's innovative Facebook tactics

Gillespie was able to dominate Warner on Facebook. "Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 4, Gillespie's Facebook page had 217,742 total interactions -- likes, comments and shares -- while Warner's site had only 34,742," USA Today reported

By 2017, after Trump was elected, Facebook's priorities had shifted away from establishment Republicans like Gillespie. In that year, Gillespie ran in the Republican primary for Governor against Corey Stewart, a brash neo-Confederate candidate who sought to emulate Trump's style. A group aligned with Stewart paid to promote a Facebook post with a fake headline: "Gillespie: I'm OK with Charlottesville Taking Down the General Lee Monument." 

Gillespie actually opposed removing the General Lee Monument. In February, Facebook refused a request from the Gillespie campaign to take down the post. A month later, in response to a question from the Associated Press, Facebook removed the post saying it violated its policies. But the damage was done. 

The incident was a harbinger of Facebook's current approach, which prioritizes the ability of Trump-style politicians to purchase ads with falsehoods over stemming the tide of political misinformation. 

The chairman of deregulation 

Facebook's DC office ensures that the company's content policies meet the approval of Republicans in Congress. A major player in that effort is the company's Vice President for U.S. Public Policy, Kevin Martin. 

"When content decisions are made to please Republican lawmakers, Kevin [Martin] and Joel [Kaplan] will be a part of that process," the former Facebook employee told Popular Information. 

Martin, who is close friends with Kaplan, was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President George W. Bush in 2001. He was appointed to be the FCC chairman in 2005. 

His tenure at the FCC is memorialized in a 110-page report produced by the House Energy and Commerce Committee entitled "Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communication Commission under Chairman Kevin J. Martin." The report found that Martin "manipulated and withheld information from the other FCC commissioners and from Congress, neglected his statutory responsibilities to produce certain information to Congress, and ignored evidence that certain national communications programs were being grossly mismanaged." According to the report, Martin's "heavy-handed, opaque, and non-collegial management style...created distrust, suspicion, and turmoil."

But Facebook was able to overlook Martin's weaknesses because of his deep commitment to deregulation of the communications industry. Zuckerberg recently described Elizabeth Warren's proposals to enforce antitrust regulations against Facebook as an "existential" threat to the company. 

Zuckerberg's comments provide the best explanation for the company's strategy in Washington. The priority is to fend off regulation of the company. Republican lawmakers, who are skeptical of most regulation, are seen as the company's best allies. So Facebook has assembled a team to keep Republican lawmakers happy, which means keeping Trump happy. The rest of the world is dealing with the consequences.

Thanks for reading!

Google misrepresentation

This is the online version of the Popular Information newsletter. You can get independent accountability journalism in your inbox every week. Sign up here:

The Trump campaign is running a video ad on YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, which claims that Trump released a transcript of his call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The entire premise of the video is that since Trump has released the transcript, the impeachment inquiry is baseless. 

The ad has been viewed over 900,000 times since it was published on September 27. 

It is also a lie. Trump has not released a transcript of his call with the Ukranian president. The document released by the White House summarizing the call specifically says it is not a "transcript." It is "notes and recollections" of National Security Council staff "assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form." 

The document includes "ellipses — punctuation indicating that information has been deleted for clarity or other reasons — that traditionally have not appeared in summaries of presidential calls with foreign leaders." That has "fueled questions about what may have been removed and why."

The ad also appears to be in violation of Google's advertising policies. Google says that it prohibits "misrepresentation" in ads. The company asserts that it doesn't "want users to feel misled by ads, so we strive to ensure ads are clear and honest, and provide the information that users need to make informed decisions." Specifically, Google prohibits ads that "intend to deceive users by excluding relevant information or giving misleading information." 

Google says misinformation includes "collecting donations under false pretenses."

Trump's ad misinforms viewers about the release of the transcript and then uses that misinformation to induce viewers to send a text message. Viewers then receive a link which, after a short survey, solicits a political donation. 

Google told Popular Information that the ad does not violate its policies. "All ads that run on our platform have to comply with our ads policies. For political advertisers, we have additional requirements such as verification of the advertiser, a paid-for-by disclosure, and inclusion in our political ads Transparency Report," a YouTube spokesperson told Popular Information.

Google questioned whether the ad actually contains misrepresentations since it relied on clips of broadcasts, rather than an original video. The ad is relying on television clips from moments after the document was released when there was substantial confusion about the nature of the document.

Google said that, even if the ad contained a misrepresentation, the policy would not apply to this ad. According to Google, is policy is limited to specific kinds of misrepresentations like misrepresenting the nature of the entity placing the ad. The policy itself, however, does not explicitly contain such a limitation. 

Google has also said that an ad making false claims about Joe Biden's actions in Ukraine does not violate its policies. A similar ad has run millions of times on Facebook. Earlier this month, Popular Information reported that Facebook's official policy is that politicians can lie in ads. Google's policy does not appear to be as direct, but the impact is roughly the same. 

Trump betting big on YouTube

For much of the campaign, Trump's ad spending on Facebook has dwarfed his spending on YouTube and other Google properties. But that is quickly changing. In the last week, where data is available, Trump's spending on Google properties exceeded $400,000.

Trump is currently spending about $580,000 per week on Facebook. Recently, Trump's ad spending on Facebook peaked at over $1.6 million per week. Overall, Trump has spent more than $8 million for ads on YouTube and other Google properties since May 2018.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is "is stepping up its efforts to snag more political-ad dollars away from local television and Facebook." It recently rolled out a new tool, called "Instant Reserve," that allows political campaigns to reserve ad space targeting key localities months in advance. In November, "Google plans to let ad buyers reserve slots on YouTube for the entirety of 2020." 

The company "has been eager to show political advertisers it can target audiences more effectively on YouTube than TV can." YouTube has been working to convince political campaigns that it can identify groups of "persuadable voters." The company has shared research with campaigns about how to target subgroups of swing voters, with names like “bargain hunters” and “30-minute chefs.”

Google's transparency report lacks transparency

Trump's advertisements and spending are released through Google's "transparency report." But this transparency report has a critical flaw: it is only updated once per week. Therefore, by the time ads are disclosed to the public, many of them are no longer running. This defeats one of the primary purposes of a transparency report, which is to allow the public to report ads that may violate Google's rules.

In response to questions from Popular Information, Google offered no explanation as to why its transparency report is updated so infrequently. The company specializes in near-instantaneous updates to its search index, so the decision to delay updates to the transparency report appears to be intentional. 

Facebook updates its ad database in real-time. 

Facebook attacks Warren on Twitter

Elizabeth Warren has been critical of Facebook's decision, first reported in Popular Information, to let politicians lie in political ads. To dramatize the problems with the policy, Warren took out an ad that falsely claimed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Donald Trump. 

Facebook approved the ad but criticized Warren directly using its "Facebook Newsroom" account on Twitter.

Facebook's decision to use its platform to criticize a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination is remarkable. Trump, for example, has repeatedly criticized Facebook in harsh terms. 

The Facebook Newsroom Twitter account has never mentioned Trump. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently described Warren as an "existential" threat to the company in a company meeting. 

Although Zuckerberg's comments have prompted concern that Facebook will tip the scales against Warren and others that favor stricter regulation of the company, Charlie Warzel, in a New York Times column, argues that isn't even necessary. "With its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, Facebook has redefined what it means to be a good candidate — and provided a distinct natural advantage to those who distort the truth and seek to divide," Warzel writes. 

Thanks for reading!

Loading more posts…