When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced recently that the state would once again attempt to go after social-media giant Facebook, you could hear the eyes rolling from Pensacola to Key West. In news stories — and yes, on Facebook — many were quick to portray it as another Trump-courting stunt from the former president’s chief acolyte.
Don’t be so quick to shrug it off. DeSantis announced the probe in the aftermath of a series of articles by the Wall Street Journal that raise serious questions about the role social media played in the 2020 election — questions that became even more urgent as social media platforms allow misinformation about COVID-19 to fester and spread.
In his announcement, DeSantis singled out one WSJ story that detailed Facebook’s practice of “whitelisting” an elite cadre that included celebrities, journalists and politicians. Once flagged, these users were protected by a protocol known as XCheck, making it far less likely that their comments would be subject to fact-checking and possible removal. This, obviously, gave some users (such incumbent elected officials) a significant advantage over their critics and political opponents. And the XCheck program was expansive, sheltering about 5.8 million users, the Journal reported — most of whom were unaware of their status.
In one example, a Brazilian soccer star posted messages and nude photos of a woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct. Normally such images would be quickly flagged and removed — but because the athlete was included in the XCheck list, Facebook moderators were blocked from removing it. An estimated 5.6 million people viewed the post.
Wall Street Journal reporters say they obtained internal documents showing that Facebook knew about the problem, but did little to combat it. Facebook officials say that’s not true, and that the Journal selectively quoted those internal reports to omit discussion of the steps the company was taking. It’s hard to say who’s right.
This is more than just politics. In another story, the Journal described Facebook as overwhelmed by scientifically dubious or downright false posts about COVID-19. The flourishing spread of misinformation has played a major role in discouraging many Americans from getting vaccinated or practicing protective measures such as wearing masks and social distancing.
These are serious allegations, and they fully acknowledge the role social media plays in modern life.
The next question, of course, is what Florida can do about it. An earlier attempt to fine or otherwise punish social-media firms that “deplatform” politicians was rightly slapped down by courts within weeks of DeSantis signing it into law.
But this new venture is different, because it’s focused on gathering information. DeSantis told Secretary of State Lauren Lee, who is his appointee, to “use all legal means to uncover violations of Florida’s election laws,” potentially using subpoenas. It’s an intriguing take. Florida’s election laws are most concerned about monetary transactions — donations and campaign expenditures. Yet it’s clear that being awarded preferential treatment by the nation’s most popular social-media site has value, in some cases great value. The governor is right when he says this amounts to a huge thumb on the scales of political capital.
An investigation by state officials carries one significant advantage over a federal inquiry, because Florida’s government-in-the-Sunshine laws should assure that any information the state uncovered would be made public — something DeSantis and Lee should ensure, by posting documents, depositions and other information where they are accessible to all. That transparency would insulate DeSantis from accusations that he is just carrying out Trump’s vendetta.
He’d be even stronger footing if he developed this concern before the election, of course. And If the state embarks on a witch hunt, that will quickly become evident. But if investigators uncover real evidence of preferential treatment or other practices that promote misinformation, it could spark a national debate about better ways to combat deceptive tactics on social media. At the very least, it would raise awareness among Americans, who might not realize they are being manipulated.
Stay tuned. This could get interesting.
— Daytona Beach News-Journal