Mark Zuckerberg has publicly said Facebook Inc. allows its more than three billion users to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture and journalism, and that its standards of behavior apply to everyone, no matter their status or fame.
In private, the company has built a system that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules, according to company documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.
At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.
A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”
“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”
Despite attempts to rein it in, XCheck grew to include at least 5.8 million users in 2020, documents show. In its struggle to accurately moderate a torrent of content and avoid negative attention, Facebook created invisible elite tiers within the social network.
In describing the system, Facebook has misled the public and its own Oversight Board, a body that Facebook created to ensure the accountability of the company’s enforcement systems….
In June 2020, a Trump post came up during a discussion about XCheck’s hidden rules that took place on the company’s internal communications platform, called Facebook Workplace. The previous month, Mr. Trump said in a post: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
A Facebook manager noted that an automated system, designed by the company to detect whether a post violates its rules, had scored Mr. Trump’s post 90 out of 100, indicating a high likelihood it violated the platform’s rules.
For a normal user post, such a score would result in the content being removed as soon as a single person reported it to Facebook. Instead, as Mr. Zuckerberg publicly acknowledged last year, he personally made the call to leave the post up. “Making a manual decision like this seems less defensible than algorithmic scoring and actioning,” the manager wrote.
Mr. Trump’s account was covered by XCheck before his two-year suspension from Facebook in June. So too are those belonging to members of his family, Congress and the European Union parliament, along with mayors, civic activists and dissidents.
While the program included most government officials, it didn’t include all candidates for public office, at times effectively granting incumbents in elections an advantage over challengers. The discrepancy was most prevalent in state and local races, the documents show, and employees worried Facebook could be subject to accusations of favoritism.
Mr. Stone acknowledged the concern but said the company had worked to address it. “We made multiple efforts to ensure that both in federal and nonfederal races, challengers as well as incumbents were included in the program,” he said.