Once upon a time, we believed that maybe if Facebook staff was aware of how the platform was being exploited as a key cog of industrial disinformation campaigns, then perhaps they would take action against the front groups using Facebook to spread disinformation. But it turns out Facebook already knows all about how front groups use Facebook to spread disinformation about regulations, because Facebook used a front group to spread disinformation about regulations.
On Tuesday, Cat Zakrzewski and Elizabeth Dwoskin at the Washington Post reported on documents from the Tech Transparency Project revealing how Facebook launched a front group called American Edge for "a full-throated campaign to combat antitrust legislation in Washington, placing op-eds in regional papers throughout the country, commissioning studies, and collaborating with a surprising array of partners, including minority business associations, conservative think tanks, and former national security officials."
If that sounds familiar to those of you who have read posts here over the years about the Union of Concerned Scientists' report on the disinformation playbook (now peer-reviewed!) or how Dr. David Michaels told Congress companies using the disinformation playbook "caused the sickness and deaths of millions through its use defending tobacco, opioids, asbestos, lead, stain-resistant chemicals, and many more toxic products."
Well, now we know for sure that Facebook is another such toxic product that's turned to the disinfo playbook instead of improving its business practices, running TV ads, local state efforts, defense trade publications, conservative propaganda "news" and websites, the whole magilla.
American Edge, the Post reported, spent "nearly $2 million in ads on Facebook," roughly half of the initial $4 million Facebook spent to found the group. By comparison, Facebook's big grant to fact checkers that it trots out in response to every criticism about its failure to protect users from climate disinformation could only scrounge up $800,000.
"It’s a political playbook more common to other industries, including pharmaceuticals, tobacco and telecommunications," Zakrzewski and Dwoskin note, "but tech companies, under heightened scrutiny from federal regulators, are seizing on these methods."
Someone who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity admitted that “Facebook can’t be the messenger. If we are out there saying it, people won’t believe it as much, so the conversation is how can you set up a proxy.” (Just like how ExxonMobil's former exec bragged in a sting about how they used "shadow groups to work against" policy!)
While Facebook itself is advertising about how it's totally pro-regulation, just like how tobacco and fossil fuel company ads claim they're part of the solution, Meta's front group American Edge is tapping Sinophobia to argue that if Silicon Valley is regulated, they'd lose out to China (where more-downloaded-than-Facebook social media app TikTok is from.)
Ahead of the 2020 elections, they "decided to seed a think tank, identifying a network of partner organizations that could emphasize how the public, and particularly vulnerable minorities, might be hurt by antitrust laws." Just like how woke-washing is the hip new disinfo tactic, Facebook tapped the longstanding business front pretending to be a Black public interest group, polluter-funded National Black U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
And this was hardly their first foray into disinfo, the Post reports. "Meta also paid a GOP consulting firm to malign TikTok, The Post reported in March… Facebook’s history of using surrogates dates at least to 2011, when the company hired a PR firm to push stories critical of rival Google’s privacy practices. In 2018, the company faced widespread criticism after news articles exposed it was paying a crisis public relations firm, Definers Public Affairs, to place articles attacking billionaire George Soros, who had funded groups that were critical of Facebook. Facebook said in a 2018 blog post that it hired Definers to 'diversify our DC advisers' after the 2016 election, in the face of regulatory threats."
Definers would certainly have helped them get into the Trump administration, as it was also the Republican firm tapped by Trump's EPA to investigate and harass critics of the Trump administration's pro-polluter EPA agenda.
Clearly Meta executives like election-stealing climate denier Joel Kaplan know all about the disinformation on Facebook, and now it makes sense why they wouldn't create content policies that forbid disinformation on the platform.
If they did, then they couldn't use it to spread their own disinformation!