WASHINGTON -- Facebook owner Meta is quietly curtailing some of the safeguards designed to thwart voting misinformation or foreign interference in U.S. elections as the November midterm vote approaches.
The pivot from the social media giant's multibillion-dollar efforts to enhance the accuracy of posts about U.S. elections and regain trust from lawmakers and the public is raising alarm about Meta's priorities and about how some might exploit its social media platforms to spread misleading claims.
Since last year, Meta has shut down an examination into how falsehoods are amplified in political ads on Facebook by indefinitely banishing the researchers from the site.
CrowdTangle, the online tool that the company offered to hundreds of newsrooms and researchers to identify trending posts and misinformation across Facebook or Instagram, is now inoperable on some days.
Public communication about the company's response to election misinformation has gone decidedly quiet.
Between 2018-20, the company released more than 30 statements that laid out specifics about how it would stifle U.S. election misinformation, prevent foreign adversaries from running ads or posts around the vote and subdue divisive hate speech.
Top executives hosted question-and-answer sessions with reporters about new policies. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote Facebook posts promising to take down false voting information and authored opinion articles calling for more regulations to tackle foreign interference in U.S. elections via social media.
But this year, Meta has only released a one-page document outlining plans for the fall elections, even as potential threats to the vote remain clear.
Meta says elections remain a priority and policies developed in recent years around election misinformation or foreign interference are now hard-wired into company operations.
Meta spokesman Tom Reynolds declined to say how many employees would be on the project to protect U.S. elections full-time this year. The New York Times reported that the number of Meta employees working on this year's election had been cut from 300 to 60, a figure Meta disputes.
This month, Meta also rolled out a new feature for political ads that allows the public to search for details about how advertisers target people based on their interests across Facebook and Instagram.
Yet Meta has stifled other efforts to identify election misinformation on its sites.
It has stopped making improvements to CrowdTangle. Journalists, fact-checkers and researchers used the website to analyze Facebook content.
That tool is now "dying," former CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman, who left Meta last year, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring.
The company has not rolled out any new updates or features to CrowdTangle in more than a year, and it has experienced hourslong outages in recent months.
Meta also shut down efforts to investigate how misinformation travels through political ads. The company indefinitely revoked access to Facebook for a pair of New York University researchers who they said collected unauthorized data from the platform.
Privately, former and current Meta employees say exposing those dangers around the American elections have created public and political backlash for the company.
Meanwhile, the possibility of regulation in the U.S. no longer looms over the company, with lawmakers failing to reach any consensus over what oversight it should be subjected to.
Free from that threat, Meta's leaders have devoted the company's time, money and resources to a new project in recent months.
Zuckerberg dived into the rebranding and reorganization of Facebook last October, when he changed the company's name to Meta Platforms Inc. He plans to spend years and billions of dollars evolving his platforms into the "metaverse" -- a virtual reality construct rendered in 3D.
News about election preparedness is announced in company blog posts not written by him.
In one of Zuckerberg's posts last October, after an ex-Facebook employee leaked internal documents showing how the platform magnifies hate and misinformation, he defended the company. He also reminded his followers that he had pushed Congress to modernize regulations around elections for the digital age.
"I believe that over the long term if we keep trying to do what's right and delivering experiences that improve people's lives, it will be better for our community and our business," he wrote on Oct. 5, 2021.
It was the last time he discussed the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company's election work in a public Facebook post.
Information for this article was contributed by Barbara Ortutay of The Associated Press.