In the days after the election, several senior Biden campaign workers talked with me about their public confrontation with Facebook, the world’s biggest social media platform. They described the company as plagued by conflicting desires: to avoid claims of political bias; to avoid being blamed for the election results, as it was in 2016; and to publicize its election integrity efforts.
Facebook thought it was trying to be a neutral referee. But the Biden and Trump campaigns were playing entirely different sports. The result, the Biden camp felt, was a paralysis and an inconsistent application of Facebook’s rules that ultimately benefited Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Here’s some of what the campaign looked like from the trenches of the disinformation war.
In early September, the Biden campaign met with Facebook’s elections integrity team. With just weeks to go before election night, the meeting was an opportunity for Facebook to clarify how it would handle disinformation efforts to discourage people from voting and to undermine confidence in the results.
According to multiple Biden staff members in attendance, the Facebook team was unequivocal and reassuring. Under no circumstances, the company’s employees said, would Facebook tolerate the use of falsehoods to discredit mail-in voting. Facebook promised decisive action on voting disinformation, even if it were to come from President Trump himself.
The promise was put to the test shortly after, when Mr. Trump on his Facebook page urged North Carolina voters to show up to polling places even if they previously submitted a mail-in ballot. “Don’t let them illegally take your vote away from you,” the post read.
Mr. Trump’s call for his supporters to vote twice was roundly condemned by officials, including North Carolina’s attorney general. But when the Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove the post, it refused, instead appending a small label saying that mail-in voting “has a long history of trustworthiness.” (BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook’s internal data show that its warning labels don’t meaningfully stop the spread of Mr. Trump’s posts.)
For the Biden team, the moment was emblematic of its frustrating yearlong battle with the platform to enforce its own rules. “It was a total reversal,” a senior staff member told me recently. “You have half-baked policies on one hand, and the political reality on the other. And when push comes to shove, they don’t enforce their rules as they describe them.” (Like this staff member, those I interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity for this article for fear of reprisals.)
Facebook, for its part, poured significant resources into election security in 2020. The company registered over 4.4 million voters, built an elections hub to push out vetted news and had an elections operation center that brought together 40 teams inside the company. Its security team, led by its cybersecurity policy chief, Nathaniel Gleicher, took down numerous foreign and domestic influence operations seeking to undermine the election.
But many of the concerns expressed by the Biden campaign revolved around attacks from Republicans, not foreign adversaries. In conversations, Biden staff members rattled off examples of egregious misinformation and disinformation:
Posts on the eve of the Iowa caucuses baselessly alleging suspicious Democratic voter registrations that spread wildly before Facebook fact-checked the claims. Disinformation aimed at Spanish-language speakers before the Nevada caucuses. The constant swirl of accusations around Mr. Biden’s son Hunter and his work in Ukraine.