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Facebook shelves project to promote political harmony

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Facebook shelved a project intended to encourage civil political discussion due to fears that it would anger conservatives.

Among other challenges related to hateful and violent content and fake news shared on the platform, inappropriate use of data by third parties, and privacy concerns, Facebook has faced a barrage of criticism from politicians across the spectrum, including some claims from right-wing figures that the social network demotes and censors conservative political opinions through efforts to clamp down on disinformation and hate speech on the platform.

In an attempt to reduce heated and polarised political arguments on the platform, Facebook employees were reportedly working on a project called “Common Ground”, which would encourage users with different political stances to interact in a constructive and respectful manner. Wall Street Journal sources said that the project was “meant to minimise toxic content and encourage more civil discussion”.

The project would have involved several features, such as altering News Feed rankings to promote posts commented on, liked or shared by users across the political spectrum, while reducing the visibility of comments that led to divisive discussions.

This project was allegedly put on hold after Facebook’s head of global policy, Joel Kaplan raised concerns that the tool could attract claims of liberal bias from conservatives. According to the Facebook sources, internal research found that conservative users tend to be more polarised than liberal counterparts, and as a result, conservative users were likely to be disproportionately affected by the features.

The project was shelved near the end of this summer with the agreement of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, although Kaplan was reportedly instrumental in this decision.

Kaplan – who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for President George W Bush – has been increasingly framed as the lone conservative figure at the head of the company. Among other actions, Kaplan supported a whitelist which protected controversial individuals and publications despite calls for them to be banned for hate speech, and sat with supporters at the Congressional hearings investigating now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – who has been accused of sexual violence – as well as hosting a party for Kavanaugh following his confirmation.

Facebook is reportedly preparing to undertake a civil rights audit in spring 2019, with a progress report expected by the end of the year.

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