All the way back in the year 2000, during a contested presidential election, a group of supposed election integrity protestors violently stopped the Florida vote recount in what became known as the “Brooks Brothers riot” (because the “protestors” were well-dressed white men). They could afford silk ties and such because many of them were, it turned out, Republican operatives. It was an early test of how the United States would take concerted acts of political violence meant to inflict terror against the election officials conducting a vote-counting process they might lose.
Clearly, we failed.
Not only was the violence rewarded with their preferred electoral outcome, but those responsible went on to key positions in the Bush administration. One, described as “a key part” of the riot because he was the Republican election observer who could have calmed the rioters by saying he was watching and nothing shady was happening. But he didn't, saying it wasn’t his job. But it would lead to one in the W. Bush administration, where he would then, among other things, thwart the EPA’s efforts to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Joel Kaplan could’ve cut off the “Brooks Brothers riot” but felt no need to tell his compatriots to stand down, and after his tenure in the Bush administration using political power and dirty tricks to prevent the finding that climate change is a public health threat from moving forward, he went on to work at Facebook.
There, Kaplan would come to dominate the company’s policy decisions, and again and again acted in exactly the way someone who deliberately stole an election and then denied the harm caused by climate change would: by preventing any changes to the platform that would limit Republicans’ ability to steal elections, lie about climate change, and otherwise preach hate.
That’s the very short version of a very long piece Benjamin Wofford published in Wired last week, profiling Joel Kaplan’s role in steering Facebook through, and perhaps into, controversy. Though some employees, including Democratic ones, stuck up for Kaplan, Wofford’s feature is as detailed as it is damning.
Here’s some excerpts, but we strongly recommend anyone concerned about the global ramifications of Facebook’s intentional design as a conservative propaganda machine find the time to read it. We’ll keep it to the climate-related content though, for sake of length.
In 2007, the EPA had found carbon dioxide emissions causing climate change were a threat to public health, and therefore should be regulated. But Kaplan stepped in to stop it, and when he couldn’t force the EPA to disavow it as a mistake, he instructed an official not to open the email containing the EPA’s finding, because that way they wouldn’t have to start the rule-making process. Instead, as “the email sat unopened for weeks,” EPA begged Kaplan for “help in bringing these issues to closure.” Six months later, the Bush EPA issued a different finding, and “this time,” Wofford writes, “it did not make any formal recommendation” to regulate CO2.
Fast forward 10 years, and Kaplan is calling the shots at Facebook. When it came to the question of whether the Daily Caller, which at the time got nearly half its annual revenue from the Koch disinfo network, should be allowed to be an official fact-checking affiliate. Facebook’s “Civic Integrity” staff thought “the move would harm the program’s reputation” because the Koch-y outlet “was a frequent offender for misinformation.” Kaplan didn’t care, and said “they’re a legitimate news site.”
At the time, the Daily Caller was getting nearly 40% of its annual revenue from the Koch network, and regularly pumping out climate disinformation.
Kaplan was not only sympathetic to outlets like the Caller that kept hiring white nationalists during the period in question (and did and still peddles climate disinfo), he was also a staunch defender of Breitbart, an outlet that very literally solicited editing feedback from white supremacists (and also peddles climate disinfo).
By 2020, Facebook’s fact-checking program was underway, but for some reason, kept excusing Breitbart and other blatantly false disinformation from the right. One “employee documented evidence that Breitbart was appealing directly to Policy team contacts to override penalties for misinformation” and “within hours, all of Breitbart’s misinformation strikes were erased.”
Similarly, when it came to Charlie Kirk and his election-steal-encouraging, ALEC-partnering, Koch-network-funded Turning Point USA page, the overturning of a “partly false” rating by fact-checkers was done with “a note that read ‘PRIORITY–WAS ASKED BY JOEL.”
“Of three dozen such escalations,” Wofford reports, “a ‘significant majority’ came from conservative publishers, while none were from outwardly progressive ones.” So, the employee asked on FB’s internal message system, perhaps rhetorically, ‘What led to this disparity?’”
Wofford’s piece makes an undeniable argument that the reason Facebook is full of violent rightwing extremists spreading climate denial and disinfo, is because that’s exactly what loyal Republican Joel Kaplan wants.
When Senator Frank Lautenberg questioned Kaplan about his complicity in the Brooks Brothers riot and why he didn’t do anything to quell the violence, Kaplan demurred that he “was not in charge of the people.” Mayco Villafaña, the local government representative attacked by the Brooks Bros rioters,“suspected he knew the answer to Lautenberg’s question,” Wofford wrote: “To win at all costs.”
These days Kaplan is leading hundreds of lobbyists in the country’s second-largest political influence teams in the country, and Wofford's reporting makes it crystal clear that Kaplan is very much in charge of the people. There’s no question that Villafaña’s assessment is right, and that Kaplan’s going to help Republicans win at all costs.
The only uncertainty is what that cost will be, as now it looks like it may be democracy, and perhaps even the climate itself, and its capacity to sustain human civilization.