- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Facebook is disputing the claim that it provided President Trump and his campaign more editorial leeway ahead of the 2020 election as part of a deal to avoid new federal regulation.

The newest tussle is part of a larger battle Facebook is fighting with critics who say they have evidence that Facebook applies different rules for politicians and VIPs than it does for the regular posters using its platforms. Answers about how Facebook’s censorship regime developed in the run-up to its ban of then-President Trump earlier this year could prove critical to regulatory and policy decisions debated by federal lawmakers and affect Mr. Trump’s lawsuit against Facebook over his ban.

Author Max Chafkin is claiming Mr. Trump’s fingerprints were on Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political speech before the 2020 election. Mr. Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Jared Kushner — Mr. Trump’s son-in-law — and billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel huddled in private at the White House in 2019 and hatched a plan, according to Mr. Chafkin, author of “The Contrarian” a book about Mr. Thiel.

“The specifics of the discussion were secret — but … Thiel later told a confidant that Zuckerberg came to an understanding with Kushner during the meal,” wrote Mr. Chafkin for New York Magazine’s website. “Facebook, he promised, would continue to avoid fact-checking political speech — thus allowing the Trump campaign to claim whatever it wanted. If the company followed through on that promise, the Trump administration would lay off on any heavy-handed regulations.”

Facebook is dismissing the allegation as nonsense.

“The policy was announced before this dinner ever took place,” Andy Stone, Facebook spokesperson, said on Twitter.

Mr. Stone said the policy developed over the course of a year before that meal, citing a September 2019 Facebook statement and a 2018 report in The Washington Post as evidence that Mr. Zuckerberg did not concoct a secret plan over a meal with Mr. Trump.

Regardless of when Facebook decided to treat political speech differently than other forms of online speech, the company’s critics are already up in arms about how it treats various users differently.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook engaged in “whitelisting” — exempting select people from its enforcement actions online. An internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting behavior found it indefensible, according to the Journal, despite Facebook employing the practice to address prominent accounts.

Facebook says critics fundamentally misunderstand its rules.

Dan Gainor, vice president at the conservative Media Research Center, criticized Facebook’s whitelisting practices but does not believe the social media giant is alone.

“As for whitelisting, it seems obvious they do it in some formal way, [b]ut all of the major social media companies treat some posters differently than others,” Mr. Gainor said in a message. “It’s awful, inconsistent and not even transparent. I just don’t think Facebook is the only one giving certain users special treatment.”

Facebook’s rules, however, are under more scrutiny than other tech platforms because of how lawmakers and regulators have taken aim at its platforms. For example, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois Democrat, wrote to Mr. Zuckerberg on Monday to request all documents regarding suspected human trafficking using Facebook and Instagram accounts.

While the CEOs of tech companies routinely receive letters from disgruntled lawmakers, Mr. Krishnamoorthi leads a subcommittee on economic and consumer policy within the House Committee on Oversight and Reform with considerable say over regulation for the social media companies.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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