Everyone by now is familiar with the specific kind of partisan rage that manifests on Facebook, particularly with the kind of tailored memes meant to incite political outrage that find a home on its platform. But according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Facebook mulled a tool meant to facilitate greater tolerance among those with opposing political beliefs before it was reportedly stalled by Facebook’s Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan.
Citing sources familiar with the matter, the Journal reported Sunday that Kaplan, who memorably pissed off Facebook staff after supporting Brett Kavanaugh, objected to the so-called called “Common Ground” project over concerns that the endeavor would prompt allegations of political bias against conservatives. The project “involved several potential products meant to minimize toxic content and encourage more civil discussion,” per the Journal:
One idea was to change the ranking of news-feed posts to give a boost to those liked, commented or shared by people across the political spectrum, the people said. Another idea was to demote “hateful” comments, defined as those that sparked negative discussion, in conversation threads, some of the people said.
Mr. Kaplan balked when briefed on internal Facebook research that found right-leaning users tended to be more polarized, or less exposed to different points of view, than those on the left, according to people familiar with the analysis. That internal research tracks with the findings of academic studies.
According to the report, the project was shelved toward the tail end of the summer at Mark Zuckerberg’s direction, though the Journal positions Kaplan as instrumental in stalling it. A Facebook spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment about the project and Kaplan’s reported role in the decision.
The Journal noted that Kaplan’s position at the company has been strained. He’s reportedly urged some controversial initiatives at Facebook, such as a partnership with the Daily Caller’s fact-checking entity in spite of its tilted track record. Citing people familiar with the discussions—which were said to also include Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg—the Journal reported that talks of the potential partnership “ended in November when The Daily Caller’s fact-checking operation lost its accreditation [by the Poynter Institute].”
Kaplan stirred internal controversy at the company just months ago after appearing at hearings for Kavanaugh in a designated area for supporters, which some employees argued disregarded survivors of sexual violence (Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct). Internal posts about the incident obtained by the New York Times expressed outrage at the decision, with one program manager reportedly writing: “This was a protest against our culture, and a slap in the face to [Kaplan’s] fellow employees.”
Was Facebook’s would-be pro-civility tool likely to fix the pervasive vitriol on the company’s platform on its own? Probably not. Would it have hurt to explore ways to facilitate a healthier experience on the platform for everyone involved? Again, probably no.