SAN FRANCISCO — Since the 2016 election, when Russian trolls and a tsunami of misinformation turned social media into a partisan battlefield, Facebook has wrestled with the role it played in President Donald Trump’s victory.
Now, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times, a longtime Facebook executive told employees that the company had a moral duty not to tilt the scales against Trump as he seeks reelection.
On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Trump. But citing the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and philosopher John Rawls, Bosworth said that doing so would eventually backfire.
“I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result,” he wrote. “So what stays my hand? I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment.
“Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her,” he said, misspelling the name of the character Galadriel. “As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.”
In a meandering 2,500-word post, titled “Thoughts for 2020,” Bosworth weighed in on issues including political polarization, Russian interference and the news media’s treatment of Facebook. He gave a frank assessment of Facebook’s shortcomings in recent years, saying that the company had been “late” to address the issues of data security, misinformation and foreign interference. And he accused the left of overreach, saying that when it came to calling people Nazis, “I think my fellow liberals are a bit too, well, liberal.”
Bosworth also waded into the debate over the health effects of social media, rejecting what he called “wildly offensive” comparisons of Facebook to addictive substances like nicotine. He instead compared Facebook to sugar and said that users were responsible for moderating their own intake.
“If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position,” Bosworth wrote. “My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.”
The post by Bosworth, a former head of Facebook’s advertising team, provides an unusually candid glimpse of the debates raging within Facebook about the platform’s responsibilities as it heads into the 2020 election.
The biggest of those debates is whether Facebook should change its rules governing political speech. Posts by politicians are exempt from many of Facebook’s current rules, and their ads are not submitted for fact-checking, giving them license to mislead voters with partisan misinformation.
Last year, platforms like Twitter and Google announced restrictions to their political advertising tools ahead of the 2020 election.
Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, have faced heavy pressure from Democrats and Republicans, including Trump’s campaign, not to restrict its own powerful ad platform, which allows political campaigns to reach targeted audiences and raise money from supporters. But other politicians, and some Facebook employees, including a group that petitioned Zuckerberg in October, have argued that the social network has a responsibility to stamp out misinformation on its platform, including in posts by politicians.
Bosworth said that even though keeping the current policies in place “very well may lead to” Trump’s reelection, it was the right decision.
Dozens of Facebook employees pushed back on Bosworth’s conclusions, arguing in the comments section below his post that politicians should be held to the same standard as other Facebook users. They debated whether Facebook should ban or remove posts by politicians, including Trump, that included hate speech or forms of misinformation.
One Facebook employee warned that if the company continued to take its current approach, it risked promoting populist leaders around the world, including in the United States.
A Facebook spokeswoman provided a statement from Bosworth in which he said that the post “wasn’t written for public consumption” but that he “hoped this post would encourage my coworkers to continue to accept criticism with grace as we accept the responsibility we have overseeing our platform.”
Ultimately, the decision on whether to allow politicians to spread misinformation on Facebook rests with Zuckerberg. In recent months, he has appeared to stand firm on the decision to keep the existing ad policies in place, saying that he believes Facebook should not become an arbiter of truth. But he has also left himself room to change his mind. In November, a Facebook spokesman said that the company was “looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads.”
Among those lobbying Zuckerberg is Trump himself, who claimed on a radio show Monday that Zuckerberg had congratulated him on being “No. 1” on Facebook during a private dinner.
Bosworth said he believed Facebook was responsible for Trump’s 2016 election victory but not because of Russian interference or the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of Facebook users’ data was leaked to a political strategy firm that worked with the Trump campaign. Bosworth said the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica revelations — uncovered by The New York Times, working with The Observer of London and The Guardian — rightly changed the conversation around how Facebook should handle user data and which companies should be given access to that data.
But, he said, Trump simply used Facebook’s advertising tools effectively.
“He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica,” Bosworth wrote. “He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”
Bosworth, a longtime confidant of Zuckerberg’s who is viewed by some inside Facebook as a proxy for the chief executive, has been an outspoken defender of the company’s positions in the past.
In 2018, BuzzFeed News published a memo Bosworth wrote in 2016 justifying the company’s growth-at-all-costs ethos, in which he said that the company’s mission of connecting people was “de facto good,” even if it resulted in deaths.
After the memo’s publication, a Facebook executive said the company wished it could “go back and hit delete” on Bosworth’s 2016 post.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company