For years, Facebook has operated a little known program called “XCheck,” which allows celebrities, politicians, and other members of America’s elite to elude the kinds of content moderation policies that the average user is subject to, a new report from the Wall Street Journal reveals.
Though the company has frequently professed to treat everybody equally, the program suggests Facebook has a tiered system of treatment for users that, much like the rest of American society, allows certain powerful, well-to-do individuals to basically play by their own rules.
Also known as “cross check,” the program was ostensibly created as a “quality control” mechanism for moderation, meant to add an extra layer of review to incidents involving high-profile users. However, in reality, it has functionally worked as a means of side-stepping actual enforcement in such cases—thus avoiding unwanted “PR fires.”
Since its inception, Facebook has struggled to define its approach to moderation. With some 2.8 billion users, the social media giant is overrun by an ongoing deluge of troubling content and misinformation, and has spent recent years hiring small armies of contractors to monitor and moderate the content that pops up on its platform. Banning or punishing a user for their content becomes more tricky the more prominent they are, however.
So while kicking a rowdy celebrity or politician off its platform can be a big, risky undertaking, XCheck essentially allows the company to stall or forego taking such enforcement actions, thus avoiding controversy altogether.
This process has apparently morphed into a system that, today, protects “millions of VIP users” from the same kind of scrutiny as normal, everyday users, the Wall Street Journal reports. Many such users are “whitelisted,” basically making them immune from enforcement—and allowing them to post inflammatory content, such as misinformation or “posts [that] contain harassment or incitement to violence,” the likes of which would get a normal user booted.
Recipients of such privileges have included former President Donald Trump (prior to his 2-year suspension from the platform earlier this year), his son Donald Trump Jr., rightwing commentator Candace Owens, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others. In most cases, individuals who are “whitelisted” or given a pass on moderation enforcement are unaware that it is happening.
Employees at Facebook seem to have been aware that XCheck is problematic for quite some time. “We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” company researchers said in a 2019 memo entitled “The Political Whitelist Contradicts Facebook’s Core Stated Principles.” “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”
When asked for comment on the recent report, Facebook referred Gizmodo to comments recently made by the company’s communications officer, Andy Stone, via Twitter. Stone pointed to previous comments Facebook had made about its program, arguing that the program didn’t represent a bifurcated system of justice but, rather, a work-in-progress that admittedly needs some revamping.
“As we said in 2018: “‘Cross-check’ simply means that some content from certain Pages or Profiles is given a second layer of review to make sure we’ve applied our policies correctly.” There aren’t two systems of justice; it’s an attempted safeguard against mistakes.”
Stone further added that Facebook knew the program needed to be improved. “We know our enforcement is not perfect and there are tradeoffs between speed and accuracy,” Stone went on. “The WSJ piece repeatedly cites Facebook’s own documents pointing to the need for changes that are in fact already underway at the company. We have new teams, new resources and an overhaul of the process that is an existing work-stream at Facebook.”