Even by the standards of the Trump White House, the crisis that unfolded on the morning of May 29, 2020, was a memorable one. That Friday, a handful of staffers found themselves crammed into a West Wing office around a phone, some listening in guarded disbelief. Mark Zuckerberg was on the line, asking for a word with the president.
Minneapolis was in its fourth day of mass protests, which had not relented since George Floyd was killed under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Early Friday morning, around 1 am Eastern, President Donald Trump had published a 102-word philippic to his Facebook and Twitter pages. He pledged the support of the US military and appended a hellish augury: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Among Facebook’s leaders in Washington, DC, the gravity of the dilemma this posed for the company was instantly clear. For four years, Zuckerberg had walked an impossible tightrope, attempting to assuage two implacable tribes. At one pole were powerful conservatives for whom it had become an article of faith that Facebook was sabotaging the right. At the other were Democratic legislators—to say nothing of Facebook’s left-leaning employees—who believed the precise opposite, accusing the company of rewriting its rules to pave the way for Trumpism. Now it was as if Trump, gazing up at Zuckerberg’s high-wire act, had yanked down hard on the line.
While Zuckerberg slept three time zones away, the management of the crisis fell largely to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and the leader of the company’s DC office. By the time the CEO woke up, Kaplan’s team had prepared a strategy memo for him, offering three ways to interpret Trump’s looting-and-shooting remark. The phrase could be read as a discussion of the state’s use of force, or as a mere hypothetical prediction. Either were allowed under Facebook’s terms of service. Or it could be understood as an incitement to violence, which Facebook does not allow, even for elected leaders; under that reading, the post would have to come down. Just the previous day, however, Trump had signed an executive order that took aim at social media companies, calling out Facebook by name for participating in “selective censorship.” To some in Facebook’s DC office, Trump’s post was practically a dare: All understood that tampering with it would likely spell the end of Facebook’s delicately managed relationship with the White House.
So Kaplan and his staff pursued another solution: They were attempting to wrangle the unwrangleable president directly, to enlist him in helping Facebook's case. White House staff had already heard from Facebook at least once that morning. But it was when the billionaire CEO himself later appeared on the line, with Kaplan listening in silently, that administration officials truly sensed the company’s urgency. “I have a staff problem,” Zuckerberg said, describing the uproar the post was causing at headquarters. One person familiar with the call thought Zuckerberg sounded like he wanted Trump to “bail him out.” Around the White House, officials summarized Zuckerberg’s appeal with leery amusement: “Mark doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with” Trump’s post, they snickered, “but his staff is going to kill him.” (Meta denies Zuckerberg said anything to this effect, and says that he was always unequivocal in condemning the post.)
In the early afternoon, Zuckerberg’s cell phone rang. It was the president. As Zuckerberg would publicly tell the story, he chastised Trump for his “divisive and inflammatory” post, but the men agreed that it would stay up. A short while later, a second post appeared on Trump’s Facebook page. In somewhat lawyerly detail, he announced that his use of “looting and shooting” was “spoken as a fact, not as a statement,” nor an incitement. “I don’t want this to happen,” he wrote, a declaration that seemed to place his post squarely inside the bounds of Facebook’s terms of service.
As some Facebook employees recount, it was like Trump could have been reading from the Kaplan team’s memo. In a Facebook post, Zuckerberg would later say he found Trump’s post “deeply offensive,” while appearing to suggest that the president’s timely follow-up had bolstered Facebook’s rationale to leave it untouched. A conservative revolt against Facebook had been temporarily averted. Facebook’s liberal staff remained incensed—hundreds staged a virtual walkout to protest the decision—but most grumbled cynically and went back to work. “This was like a four-alarm fire,” a former senior Policy staffer who worked closely with Kaplan told me, and Kaplan had “put it out.”
In Silicon Valley, Joel Kaplan is regarded as one of Facebook’s most curious enigmas. Hired in 2011 after eight years in the Bush White House, his tenure has coincided with Facebook’s rise to global dominance—and its ascendance to the throne of permanent controversy. Formally, Kaplan’s role is to forecast and manage policy risk. Functionally, his authority is as sprawling as the company’s reach. The 52-year-old has not only assembled one of history’s most prolific lobbies in Washington, where he manages relations across the federal government as well as with state capitals and their increasingly avid attorneys general. He also leads a team of a thousand Policy staff worldwide, assessing, shaping, and often thwarting the boundless constellation of international laws and policies that graze Facebook’s business and its 2.9 billion users across the globe, from German privacy rules to Iowa firearm laws to Indian political parties. For a company whose power has no equivalent, Kaplan’s is a job without precedent. One person described Kaplan to me as “Washington dark matter”—exerting powerful gravitational forces but strangely hidden. Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley and a recent adviser to the Biden White House on tech reform, told me that “Joel Kaplan is probably the most influential person at Facebook that most people have never heard of.”
But Kaplan—who declined to comment for this story—has another role that drags him out of anonymity: helping to design and arbitrate much of Facebook’s policy on political speech. Since the 2016 election, the platform’s approaches to its most controversial challenges—including fake news, algorithmic ranking, and hate speech—have been furnished to varying degrees from the mind of Kaplan. He has played a pivotal role in exempting politicians from Facebook’s community standards, protecting shock-jock sites like Breitbart from punishment, and throttling algorithmic changes that might have made Facebook less politically polarized. Employees believe they’ve seen proof of Kaplan’s right-wing favoritism—the subject of at least one sworn affidavit in a whistleblower action, and an obstacle for employees who describe part of their duties at Facebook as making their product ideas “Joel-proof.” Others describe a fair-minded manager and compassionate mentor, to whom many Facebook staffers, including staunch liberals, remain profoundly loyal.
Kaplan’s many defenders argue that he is merely an envoy of a free-speech ideal that reflects a vast constituency of Facebook users. Critics see a malign influence responsible for steering the company rightward. Kara Swisher, the prominent tech commentator, has labeled him a “menace.” Last year, Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media and an unrelenting critic of Facebook, said publicly that Kaplan would “go down in history books as one of the people who have caused great damage to our democracy.”
This burgeoning profile has begun to dog Kaplan in Washington. In 2019, after he was photographed striding through the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, where many congressmembers have their offices, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that “Kaplan is flexing his DC rolodex” to help Facebook evade regulation. Last year, the civil rights group Color of Change launched a new campaign: #FireJoelKaplan. More recently, Kaplan has been targeted by the DC attorney general, whose lawyers have demanded to see his emails. In a town where Big Tech’s fortunes have long been burnished by prominent fixers—who exist primarily to repel unwanted controversy—arguably no fixer has attracted more controversy than Kaplan.
Today the limits of Facebook’s influence in Washington are being tested. Congressional Democrats are racing to pass legislation that would limit Facebook’s power, and that President Joe Biden could sign before this fall’s midterm elections. Meanwhile, White House appointees in the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and Department of Justice are leading headstrong efforts to circumscribe Big Tech, including a federal lawsuit brought by FTC chair Lina Khan to break up Facebook. “I think 2022 is going to be the pivotal year,” says Steyer, who has worked with the White House and Congress on their approach to Facebook. “For the first time, Facebook is genuinely going to be held accountable.”
Optimism like Steyer’s stems in part from two events in 2021—the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which was heavily coordinated on Facebook, and the testimony of product manager turned whistleblower Frances Haugen—that have brewed the conditions for cooperation across the aisle. Bipartisanship is a force often frivolously invoked inside the Beltway. But Brendan Carr, the highest-ranking Republican on the FCC and a vocal Trump supporter, largely agrees with Steyer. Facebook, he says, “has lost all their friends in Washington.”
Facebook may be politically friendless, but Joel Kaplan is not. Most think the influence network he has assembled will be a formidable obstacle for leaders of the techlash. Having spent $20 million last year, Facebook is now running the second-largest lobbying effort by a public company in the US, only shy of Amazon. David Cicilline, the Democratic representative who has led the push for antitrust legislation, describes the salvo as “an armada of lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill.”
“They have a lot of money, a lot of power, a lot of influence,” says Mike Davis, a longtime Republican official on Capitol Hill who founded the Internet Accountability Project. “If these bipartisan bills pass, or even two or three pass, they’re going to get rocked. And it’s going to cost them a lot of money.” In certain ways, a battle of such proportions is the natural culmination of Kaplan’s career, one that has been devoted to defending the most powerful institutions in America. As Davis bluntly puts it, “This will be the biggest fight of Kaplan’s professional life.”
Long before he ever heard Mark Zuckerberg’s name, Joel Kaplan was shaping the world that Facebook would someday dominate.
The youngest of three children, Kaplan was raised in middle-class Weston, Massachusetts. Both his father, Mark, an attorney for municipal unions, and his mother, a college administrator, were liberal Democrats. Kaplan went to Harvard, where, on the first night of orientation, he met a twiggy and curly-haired freshman from Miami named Sheryl Sandberg. The two would date briefly that year. He was also an active student Democrat and successfully campaigned to be a ward delegate at the statewide Democratic convention. In student government, he championed randomized student housing, telling The Crimson, “Segregation, voluntary or involuntary, accentuates differences and breeds intolerance.”
In his senior year, however, signs of a shift began to manifest. That February, the US invaded Kuwait, and Kaplan watched the campus roar to life with anti-war activists, who marched with gas masks and chanted their parents’ slogans from Vietnam. The experience, says Kristen Silverberg, a student at the time who later became friends with Kaplan, presented “an extreme version of Democratic politics on a largely liberal campus” that left many students cold. By the end of senior year, Kaplan had omitted the Democrats from his yearbook activities. Shortly after graduating, he joined the Marines.
In 1992, Kaplan reported to Quantico to begin training as an officer. Having missed the war, his tour in garrison mostly involved leading training exercises at Camp Pendleton. After more than three years in uniform, Kaplan returned to Harvard as a law student—and by the end would be telling classmates that he was a conservative. He finished his first year near the top of his class and lost the Law Review’s prestigious presidency by a single vote. Agreeable to compromise and disinclined to culture war, Kaplan sometimes called himself a “Colin Powell Republican.” (He wrote in the general’s name for president in 1996.) But within the GOP, Powell’s brand was fading. In the summer of 1998, after heading to Washington for a judicial clerkship, Kaplan befriended a star lawyer named Brett Kavanaugh, who had just rejoined Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, and watched his friend rocket through the ranks of the conservative elite. (For DC’s hotshot conservatives, Kaplan later jokingly told an audience, Kavanaugh was an exemplar: “Even the most socially challenged groups need role models, and we had Brett.”)
By 2000, Kaplan was clerking for Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s most prominent conservative, and in July he joined George W. Bush’s presidential campaign as a policy aide to Dick Cheney. On November 8, the night of the election, as the networks scrambled to call the Florida results, the Bush campaign scrambled to find lawyers. By 6 am, Kaplan was on a flight to Miami, the sun rising on what would later be described as one of the most contested and combustible events in American politics. At 31 years old, Kaplan had never seen combat, but he was about to go to war.
As Bush’s lead in Florida shrank to 300 votes, the Gore campaign requested a hand recount in four counties, including deeply Democratic Miami-Dade. On November 21 the Florida Supreme Court ordered the recounts to proceed, and to declare a winner in five days. For the first time, it appeared to many in both campaigns that Gore—fairly or unfairly—was about to win Florida.
Early the next morning, Kaplan joined Bush lawyers who arrived at the Clark Center, a drab government building in downtown Miami. In a conference room on the 18th floor, attorneys from the two campaigns assembled before Miami-Dade’s local election authority, the Board of Canvassers: two local judges, plus Miami’s supervisor of elections, a wizened official named David Leahy.
The purpose of the hearing was to start the recount, but, as Leahy explained, it was impossible to hand-count all of Miami-Dade’s 650,000 ballots within five days. Since tallying all the votes was Gore’s best scenario, and counting none was Bush’s, Leahy suggested a compromise: Tally the 10,750 mystery ballots that machines—unable to read the “hanging chads”—had failed to count. This, Leahy estimated, would take only 36 hours. Taking half a loaf, the Gore lawyers agreed. Kaplan and the Bush lawyers, meanwhile, bitterly opposed the idea: Either all the votes should be counted, they argued, or none should.
Watching quietly from the side of the hearing room was Mayco Villafaña, the media spokesperson for Miami-Dade. A reedy, quiet, patriotic man whose father had languished in one of Fidel Castro’s prisons, Villafaña believed that work in government was a noble calling. “It’s about integrity,” Villafaña says. “You do your duty. And you do not inject your own biases or opinion.” When the political elites and lawyers converged on the Clark Center to adjudicate the peaceful transfer of power, he assumed they would share this unspoken view. “I was naive,” Villafaña says.
The Gore campaign largely approached the recount as a legal proceeding. The Bush campaign had summoned political operative Roger Stone to Miami to help organize rowdy protests against the recount. Outside the Clark Center, Stone was in a rented RV using walkie-talkies, he would later say, to direct a defiant circus of costumed Bush protesters in the open-air plaza surrounding the Clark Center. About a hundred Bush supporters were also packed into an 18th-floor hearing room at the moment when the canvassers unanimously voted to start the hand count immediately. Without much thought, Leahy casually proposed they do the recount upstairs, in the county’s 19th-floor election office. Away from throngs of onlookers, each campaign would have two observers in the room at a time, to watch the count up close; the Bush campaign chose Kaplan to be one of its observers.
By moving the count out of public view, Leahy had made an impetuous but catastrophic mistake. “We were not ready for what happened,” Villafaña says. “All hell broke loose.”
A crowd of Bush supporters made for the 19th floor. There, they poured into a constricted vestibule with a broad glass window peering into the election office and a secure access door for authorized personnel. With startling speed—“a flash fire,” Villafaña says—the mass swelled to somewhere between 50 and 80 people in a room meant for a dozen at most, and erupted in chants: “VOTER FRAUD! VOTER FRAUD!” and “LET US IN! LET US IN!” The crowd, almost entirely men, started banging their fists on the windows and kicking the doors—audible to election workers inside. On the door’s opposite side were Villafaña, two sheriff’s deputies, and Ed Hollander, Miami-Dade’s chief of security. When the door was opened, the crowd grabbed it, and the four men struggled to get it closed, pulling with all their weight to keep it shut. It was bulletproof, Hollander knew, and locked from the inside. But a stream of lawyers and officials needed to get in and out.
At one point, as the crowd wedged the door open, a ruddy-faced man started kicking Villafaña. “Don’t hit me! Don’t hit me!” the man shouted loudly, in earshot of a CNN camera, while he stomped Villafaña in the shins and thigh. Others got the idea and began shoving Villafaña. “Don’t hit me!” they shouted, and started getting in the faces of observers, who now had to push their way to the door in a hurricane of noise: “Whore!” protesters screamed at one observer. “LET US IN!”
Looking out on the crowd, it occurred to Hollander that the outcome of a presidential election hinged on a room full of ballots that were being counted less than 50 feet from a battle zone. As Hollander recalls, “If people were to break into that office, or storm it, then thousands of votes could have been at risk.” Inside there were also county officials, campaign operatives, and judges. “If that mob got in, I would fear for their safety.”
Downstairs, a Republican representative urged on a crowd of Bush supporters by declaring that they were witnessing “the stealing of a presidential election.” Upstairs in the vestibule, Hollander thought the scene was no longer just a rowdy protest but had taken on an air of insurgency. At least two election officials had been kicked and punched. So on his radio, Hollander called in a “315”—code for emergency officer reinforcements. He told the deputies to guard the ballots no matter what, and to keep the door shut until backup arrived. For the time being, the protesters had succeeded. The count was frozen.
Around 10:30 am, inside the tabulation room in the 19th-floor election office, Leahy huddled with Kaplan, alongside Bush lawyer Neal Connolly and Gore lawyer Jack Young, deliberating whether the board should adjourn downstairs. Villafaña had installed audio equipment and a camera inside the elections office, and a few reporters hovered nearby. What happened next was captured by a young Jake Tapper, who later recounted the scene in his book Down and Dirty.
Villafaña, Tapper wrote, asked both the Gore and Bush lawyers if they would each tell the protesters to return peacefully to the 18th floor. Young immediately agreed. Then Leahy cut the air. “Until the demonstration stops, nobody can do anything.”
Kaplan spoke first. “I suspect that if the announcement was made by—” Villafaña cut him off. “The announcement needs to be made by someone in the party.” Stalling, Connolly interjected: “Would the board be able to issue a couple of sentences?”
“They will listen, I think, to someone from the party,” Villafaña said.
“I don’t know if they would listen to us, or the other side,” Connolly replied. Young cut in: “I don’t believe it is both parties.”
Kaplan said nothing. That’s when Connolly made the Bush position clear. “I would simply request that the board affirmatively state that it intends to come downstairs as soon as possible.” In other words: The Bush campaign would not ask protesters to clear out until the board agreed to move. The board would reconvene downstairs—just as soon as backup officers arrived and could secure both floors.
Three hours later, the Board of Canvassers filed back into the conference room. Without warning, the board announced that it found itself in “a radically different situation.” The melee had slowed counting to a trickle, and Leahy couldn’t guarantee that the process could be concluded. Over the objections of stunned Gore lawyers, and to cheers from the Bush crowd, the board reversed itself, halting the recount.
The Brooks Brothers Riot, as the event would be called—on account of the shirts and blazers worn by many in the angry crowd—briefly became the subject of high-minded Washington palaver. Representative Jerry Nadler condemned the use of “mob violence and intimidation,” while another congressperson asked the FBI to investigate the rioters. Later, video footage would identify several who swarmed the elections office as professional Republican operatives: congressional aides, staffers from the National Republican Congressional Committee, two congressmen, and at least two Bush campaign staffers. It would take months before the public learned how the flash fire had started. A Republican representative, John Sweeney, had incited the crowd to storm the election office, instructing two aides over the phone: “Shut it down!” Roger Stone appeared to have contributed too: “I said ‘Flood the hall,’” he recounted, years later. “And don’t let them shut that door.”
But by then, the ordeal was lost in the fog of the recount saga. In 2001, David Boies, Gore’s lawyer, described the event as the recount’s turning point. The campaign had projected the undervotes to put Gore narrowly ahead. “I think that would have changed things,” said Boies.
The Bush campaign, meanwhile, framed the events as a populist act of patriotic necessity. A campaign press release announced that Leahy’s Canvassing Board had taken “10,000 ballots to the 19th floor to count them in secret” and described the crowd’s actions as “inevitable and well-justified.” At a campaign celebration the day after the riot, protesters mingled with the Bush team. Later, when Bush and Cheney called in by speakerphone, Cheney singled out Kaplan for praise, joking that his shy policy aide made for an unlikely rioter.
When Villafaña later discovered that those who kicked and shoved him weren’t Miami locals but Washington professionals, he was stunned. “I do believe it was violence. And I do believe it did have an impact on the decision of the Canvassing Board.” He quit local government a few months later.
Like several others at the Clark Center, Kaplan went into the White House in 2001. As a policy aide, he was a star. He made his colleagues laugh with disarming self-deprecation and earned a prized Bush nickname: “Blade.” Kaplan was largely untroubled by Miami-Dade, until 2003, when the White House nominated him to a senior role in the Office of Management and Budget. At his confirmation hearing he was confronted by Frank Lautenberg, the ancient senator from New Jersey and a World War II veteran. Lautenberg asked Kaplan to name his relevant job experience, and Kaplan began by referencing his “experience as an officer in the Marine Corps.”
“Platoon leader,” Lautenberg said coolly.
“Platoon leader and then an executive officer.”
Why, then, Lautenberg asked, had Kaplan done nothing when Leahy pleaded with him to calm the rioters? “Why you, with all of the training that you have had in the law, and the skills, the academic background that you bring?” he asked. “You knew what was happening.” Why hadn’t the platoon leader come to the lobby and simply announced, “We have our observers. Everything is aboveboard”?
Kaplan replied that his role was that of an election observer, and that he “was not in charge of the people who were congregated outside.” Lautenberg didn’t press the subject much further, and a few weeks later Kaplan was confirmed as deputy director. But the exchange stuck out in the mind of Villafaña, who, although he barely knew Joel Kaplan, suspected he knew the answer to Lautenberg’s question: “To win at all costs.”
Kaplan remained in the Bush White House for all eight years. He rose to deputy chief of staff, managing a wide terrain of domestic policy issues, including federal surveillance law and immigration reform. He also proved adept at the Washington gamesmanship required to protect his boss.
In late 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency was on the brink of a historic feat: declaring that greenhouse gases posed a direct threat to the public through climate change. On the afternoon of December 5, an EPA official named Jason Burnett emailed the agency’s official but unpublished Endangerment Finding to the Office of Management and Budget, thus triggering a federal review process that would in all likelihood lead to the first-ever regulations of CO2 emissions from vehicles and, eventually, power stations. A half-hour later, Steven Johnson, Bush’s EPA administrator, walked into Burnett’s office. As Burnett recalls, Johnson had just gotten off the phone: Joel Kaplan was asking them not to send the report to the OMB. When Burnett said he’d already sent it, Johnson left, then came back five minutes later. “Joel is asking whether you can send a follow-on email, saying you sent it in error.”
“And I said, ‘Well, no—because I didn’t,’” Burnett recalls, laughing. “This is the key environmental issue of our time, the evidence is clear. No, I didn’t send it ‘by mistake.’” Johnson went back to the phone and again returned a few minutes later. “OK, Joel is going to tell Susan Dudley”—the OMB official who had received the EPA document—“not to open your email.” Burnett was speechless, and also somewhat impressed at Kaplan’s logic. Under a certain theory, if the email remained unopened, the OMB wasn’t in receipt of its contents. “And if you’re not in receipt of its contents, then you don’t have to take action that would flow from having received this Endangerment Finding—literally, that the public is in danger from climate change.”
After the email sat unopened for weeks, Johnson drafted a letter directly to Bush. It read, “I have concluded that it is in the Administration’s best interest to move forward” with the EPA’s three-phase plan to regulate greenhouse gases. In January, Johnson sent the letter to the White House by courier. At the top, on EPA stationery, was a hand-scrawled note to Kaplan: “Joel, I really need your help in bringing these issues to closure. Thank you, Steve.” According to Burnett, Kaplan called a few days later and told Johnson to have someone from the EPA come over and take the letter back. Six months later, the EPA issued a new version of its findings; this time it did not make any formal recommendation.
When Bush’s term ended, Kaplan went to work for a Texas energy company. But he had kept in touch with Sheryl Sandberg, who was looking to build out Facebook’s small team in Washington. Kaplan joined in 2011, overseeing domestic policy. He understood little about how the internet worked and had to be taught by snickering staff. Yet the company’s main concern in DC at the time wasn’t fending off laws but building an image. In Washington, Facebook’s trajectory was reflected in its ever changing lease: from a cramped walk-up in DuPont Circle to swankier F Street digs in Penn Quarter to the Warner building on Pennsylvania Avenue—each move inching closer to the White House.
In 2014, Kaplan was promoted to Facebook’s top job in Washington. Staffers were intrigued by their new boss. “At heart, he’s a policy wonk,” one Democratic consultant says, adding that Kaplan “likes to get his fingers dirty.” Another stresses Kaplan’s “platinum relationships” on both sides of the political aisle. At Facebook, Kaplan’s wry humor made him well liked. “He will charm the shit out of you,” says a former senior executive. “That is one of his great superpowers.” At least among male staffers, he occasionally referenced JJDIDTIEBUCKLE, the 14 values of the Marine Corps. One woman remembers a short-lived nickname, taken up by besotted staff: Joel Kaplan, they said, was a “Leader of Men.”
At Kaplan’s direction, Facebook began to hire and promote an array of professional Democrats and Republicans, in roughly equal measure. One was Crystal Patterson, a polished Democratic operative who’d worked for Hillary Clinton. Another was Katie Harbath, a well-traveled Republican, whom Kaplan put in charge of Facebook’s global elections team. Both women describe Kaplan as brilliant and an even-handed manager who openly welcomed criticism. He was also unsparing when evaluating his staffers’ ideas. “He is really good at finding the loose threads and pulling on them,” Patterson says. Harbath describes Kaplan’s “Socratic method to managing,” stress-testing proposals with a barrage of questions. The exercise had two purposes: “Number one,” Harbath says, was to ensure the idea was not putting Facebook’s “thumb on the scale” of a thorny or intractable issue. “And number two, to make sure that it didn’t look like we were doing that when we weren’t.”
In December 2015, Donald Trump, then a candidate in the Republican primary, proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States. When his remarks were posted to his Facebook page, even Republican staffers acknowledged that the video violated the company’s hate speech policy. But in a videoconference meeting where executives considered taking the post down, Kaplan argued for leaving it up. He warned that deleting the video would invite outrage from conservative America. The room included prominent Democrats, such as Sandberg and communications vice president Elliot Schrage. But after discussion, the team converged on Kaplan’s position and decided to leave the post intact. The conversation, as later reported by The New York Times and WIRED, essentially invented Facebook’s political “newsworthiness exemption”: a rule that would allow politicians to violate Facebook’s community standards without punishment. In making his argument, according to the Times, Kaplan had warned that taking down Trump’s video would be the political equivalent of poking a bear. (Meta spokesperson Dani Lever denies that Kaplan said this.)
Staffers describe the decision as a pivotal moment in the company’s history—when Facebook decided it would fundamentally reflect the political world rather than referee it. Many liberals at Facebook, Patterson included, came to view the ruling as disastrous. “This was an easy call. He wasn’t president yet—in fact, nobody thought he was going to win,” she says. “I think that helped him win legitimacy.” Conservatives defended the choice: Harbath notes that the video was already widely reported and that removing content by a presidential candidate would be unprecedented. Hany Farid predicts that Kaplan’s role in creating the newsworthiness exemption will be viewed as an early moment when elites sat down to craft the core values of the social web and got things precisely backward. People in positions of power should be held to higher, not lower, standards, Farid argues, and not despite their public reach but because of it, when “they have the power to do so much more harm.”
Warning Zuckerberg of potential political blowback was elemental to Kaplan’s job. But Kaplan’s “Don’t poke the bear” mindset soon evolved into an ethos that, as Patterson puts it, “seemed to inform all of our engagements with the Trump White House and the Trump campaign.”
Soon enough, the bear was poked anyway. In May 2016, Gizmodo published allegations that Facebook’s Trending Topics widget was biased against conservative publishers and news. The story rocked the conservative establishment. One Republican senator threatened to haul Facebook executives before the Senate. A former senior Policy staffer who watched the scandal detonate in Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters says, “It scared the shit out of the Republicans in the office.”
Hours after the allegations were published, Kaplan dialed an old friend working on the Trump campaign. They conceived a Menlo Park summit where company leadership would fete conservative heavyweights. In all, 17 guests were flown in, including Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and former Bush press secretary Dana Perino. In a glass conference room in Building 20, Kaplan opened a carefully choreographed presentation with an update on the company’s internal investigation. Then Zuckerberg described to the VIPs how the platform would weed out anti-conservative bias. Afterward, guests were given a special tour, including a demo of a prototype VR headset. When reviews of the summit came back favorable, Kaplan appeared to have pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
There was just one problem: The Gizmodo allegations weren’t true. Data suggested that, if anything, conservative news was over-indexed in Trending Topics. But it hardly mattered: Facebook had encountered a political scandal that couldn’t be fought with facts. Kaplan had contained the damage, a contribution not lost on Zuckerberg. “It was probably one of the first really big moments of Joel being able to showcase that to Mark,” Harbath says, and “being able to be a trusted adviser to navigate issues on the right.”
The morning after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Kaplan led a conference call to reassure his shell-shocked colleagues. Within days, people across the company would observe Kaplan wielding new powers, and they watched Facebook transform from a campus that had once given Barack Obama a standing ovation to a company terrified of appearing too liberal. Throughout 2016, Zuckerberg had made political statements at odds with Trump’s agenda, positions that would demand rehabilitation with a party now in unified control of Washington. “There was nobody else around Mark, in his inner circle, that came from that world and could help do that,” Harbath says. “Zuck really did not want the company to be political,” says one senior product official. “That’s when Joel first started to realize: There’s no political will here in a very political situation. And obviously, if you’re smart, you love nothing more than a game where you’re the only one playing.” After Trump’s election, “Joel became the loudest voice in the room.”
For 10 years, company culture at Facebook had been dominated by product and growth engineers. During the Trump transition, a new normal emerged. Sensitive discussions about product development were increasingly expected to include senior Policy members, including sometimes Kaplan himself. Beginning in late November, a News Feed team began meeting weekly to discuss a new innovation, fact-checking. Given the daily fire hose of news stories, fact-checkers could realistically review only 20 to 50 stories each day—a list that suddenly took on political implications. On videoconferences, a person in the meetings recalls, “Joel would raise his hand and go, ‘Wait a minute. I’d like to know what that list looks like too.’” Previously, the person says, the idea that a policy person would tell a product person how to make a decision would have been “ludicrous.”
In another meeting, that December, Facebook staff deliberated over how to handle the dozens of fake news pages generated from overseas, which Facebook was feverishly documenting in the election’s aftermath. When a person proposed deleting the pages immediately, Kaplan objected, arguing that the sudden deletions would “disproportionately affect conservatives,” according to remarks first reported in The Washington Post. Warning of Republican backlash, Kaplan cautioned: “They don’t believe it to be fake news.” He suggested deleting the pages, but only after Facebook had formulated a defensible rule it could explain to the public.
The new rule, unveiled in the fall of 2017, outlawed what became known as CIB: “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” As Zuckerberg later explained, “the real issue” wasn’t the content generated by Russian accounts, but that it “was posted by fake accounts.” There wasn’t anything wrong, per se, with American users who declared #WarAgainstDemocrats or compared Hillary Clinton to Satan—as long as they were who they said they were. Kaplan was part of discussions about designing the new standard, staffers say, a joint effort by the Content Policy and Security teams.
That same fall, however, an opposite worldview was taking shape in a newly formed team called Civic Integrity. Almost immediately, staffers in the group zeroed in on the CIB policy and what they believed was its Promethean flaw: The Russian tactics of 2016 could be re-created in electoral politics all over the world—not by foreign actors but by domestic ones.
Several Civic Integrity staffers christened their concern with a half-ironic moniker: “coordinated authentic behavior.” The posts of Hungary’s authoritarian leadership, for instance, were perfectly authentic and newsworthy—and so would ordinarily not be caught in the CIB dragnet. Throughout 2017 and 2018, on trips to India, the Philippines, Ukraine, and Brazil, staffers watched as Russian-style tactics were mimicked by domestic leaders spreading jingoistic lies. Some Civic Integrity staffers even believed the dilemma posed a greater future threat to democracies than CIB. During one 2017 meeting, one staffer flagged the dilemma: “What do you do when political parties use these tools in the same way—to engage in disinformation, disparaging democracy, and voter suppression—but on their own people?”
For the next three years, Kaplan’s Policy dominion would frequently clash with the company’s various Integrity teams. Perhaps the earliest significant battle arrived with a project called Common Ground. A collaborative effort that included News Feed Integrity, Civic Integrity, and other teams, Common Ground’s goals, according to early documents reviewed by WIRED, were to reduce polarization and lower the partisan temperature on Facebook. Having been encouraged by Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, the group laid out an ambitious road map to “reduce polarization” with a cocktail of “aggressive” interventions. In place of “biased news consumption,” Common Ground would “rebalance media diets”; instead of self-segregation, “exposure to cross-cutting viewpoints”; in place of “incivility,” incentives for “good conversations.”
Facebook staff were often encouraged to think up a “Facebook solution”—ideas that were scalable and workable anywhere. Common Ground, employees say, was conceived as just such a response to the 2016 election, aimed not at Russian interference but at the social fissures that had invited it. Over the next few months, it would recommend suggesting politically diverse groups to users and boosting news outlets with high bipartisan readership, such as the BBC and The Wall Street Journal. Another idea was to reduce the viral reach of hyperactive (and hyperpartisan) users, and dial up the reach of those in the political middle. Signaling their ambitions, the team hung posters that read “Reduce Hate” and “Reduce Polarization” around the Menlo Park office. “Everyone was real excited about this work,” says a former Civic Integrity staffer. “And then, yeah—it just died.”
The project had run afoul of Kaplan and the Policy team. Routinely, recalls one senior product official who sat in on Common Ground meetings, “we would have a product argument, and Joel would make it into a political one.” From the Washington office, Kaplan subjected Common Ground product managers to his Socratic approach. The review sessions were dubbed Eat Your Veggies, a title meant to convey the feeding of hard truths to idealistic liberals in Menlo Park. Chief among Kaplan’s concerns, several say, was that the changes would have an outsize effect on political conservatives.
In an important sense, Kaplan wasn’t wrong. By then, both outside researchers and Civic Integrity staff had found that political mischief on Facebook was lopsided. A small number of extreme partisan super users were disproportionately responsible for trouble on the platform, and right-leaning accounts generated and consumed a larger share of this content than others. The upshot was that seemingly nonpartisan tweaks, like Common Ground, could have partisan effects. According to The Wall Street Journal, Kaplan called the program “paternalistic.” In the end, while some Common Ground ideas survived, its most radical proposals aimed at the United States were diluted or rejected.
Kaplan’s “paternalistic” jab, Harbath says, matched her recollection of how conservatives at Facebook saw the project—as an effort by a retinue of left-leaning engineers. “What I think Joel was trying to hold was this very small bit of ground, trying to make sure we were thinking about the entire spectrum of political thought and ideas,” she says. Even more fundamental to Kaplan and Zuckerberg’s opposition, Harbath says, was a growing conviction that it wasn’t Facebook’s job to fix America’s polarization crisis. Although Common Ground was disbanded, Eat Your Veggies stuck around—becoming the codified process for all “major/sensitive news feed launches,” according to the Facebook Papers, a trove of documents leaked by Haugen, the whistleblower.
There was another reason Common Ground was important: It laid bare Facebookers’ inner competing ideas about political fairness. Again and again, data scientists and engineers told me, if a proposed model applied neutral rules but flagged conservative users more than liberal ones, Kaplan or his team would effectively throttle it. Policy staff often requested experimental reviews that simulated how the change would affect users and publishers by political ideology. On Civic Integrity, staffers advocated for “equality of process” against what they called the Policy team’s “equality of outcome.” “Policy under Joel just had a completely different set of incentives,” says one Civic Integrity staffer. Instead of deriving a neutral standard independent of the outcome for the left or right, the staffer said, the Policy team pushed a platform where “the standard is the outcome.”
Many in Policy, and Kaplan’s other defenders, fiercely resisted the notion that they unduly weighed political outcomes in the balance of their decisions. Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, says that Policy procedures that examined the outcomes of a proposed change or launch were about instilling rigor and scrutiny into product discussions. Only then, Rosen says, could Facebook plausibly defend its policies externally (a concern frequently invoked in a company that has been hauled before Congress more than 30 times). The idea that Kaplan carried water for conservatives “is such bullshit,” says one former DC Policy staffer, a Democrat, who instead remembers him asking “sensible questions about how a critical constituency for Facebook will perceive something that we have done.”
The two sides' clash of philosophies would become a permanent source of “very high tension” at Facebook during the Trump era, says one former Civic Integrity staffer. In the coming years, the Policy approach to fairness would pan out in ways undeniably to the benefit of some right-wing provocateurs. When Kaplan pressed to allow a Daily Caller subsidiary to become a third-party fact-checking affiliate, Civic Integrity staffers replied that the move would harm the program’s reputation—the Daily Caller was a frequent offender for misinformation, even if its subsidiary was accredited. But Kaplan persisted. (“How do we keep telling them no?” a staffer recalls Kaplan saying. “They’re a legitimate news site.”)
Internally, Facebook staff have flagged actions by the Policy team that some viewed as particularly improper. In July 2020 an employee posted a message to Facebook’s Workplace discussion board alerting colleagues to several instances of “biases in the enforcement of misinformation policies.” In a post first reported by BuzzFeed News and reviewed by WIRED, the employee documented evidence that Breitbart was appealing directly to Policy team contacts to override penalties for misinformation. A Policy staffer had flagged one such Breitbart appeal as “urgent”; within hours, all of Breitbart’s misinformation strikes were erased. Among several other examples, the employee also documented an Instagram post by Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old podcaster and founder of Turning Point USA, which was rated by fact-checkers as “partly false.” After Kirk had made a direct appeal to have the label removed, it was flagged with a note that read “PRIORITY—WAS ASKED BY JOEL.” Of three dozen such escalations, a “significant majority” came from conservative publishers, while none were from outwardly progressive ones, the employee wrote, asking, “What led to this disparity?”
Patterson told me that Facebook’s capacious stance toward conservatives created a feedback loop that encouraged them to “work the refs.” “People on the right feel empowered to complain, because they know they’re probably going to get their way,” she says. “People on the left don’t tend to do that.”
Nonetheless, during the first half of the Trump administration, conservatives aggressively escalated the charge that Facebook was rigged against them. In June 2018, Kaplan and Harbath met with Kevin McCarthy, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, and then Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who complained about unfair changes to the platform. Kaplan pushed back, explaining that right-leaning content tended to violate community standards more. “This isn’t going to be a 50-50 situation,” Kaplan told them. In October 2018, before the midterm elections, Kaplan personally approved the removal of 800 political news pages, which spanned the left and right, for violating the CIB policy.
Those who observed Kaplan in other settings, however, thought the Policy team had become fixated on its relationship with Trump. In a sworn affidavit to the SEC, a whistleblower has alleged that Kaplan strategically catered to Breitbart despite its repeated violations of Facebook standards. The whistleblower told me that, internally, the conservative publisher was generating extraordinary engagement on Facebook, but that other staff, including Civic Integrity, thought the site should be down-ranked for its repeated violations. During a meeting in which staff discussed levying penalties against Breitbart, Kaplan cut in: “What do I need to say to tell you we are not touching Breitbart?”—a remark the person says they would hear Kaplan make several times. Kaplan allegedly explained that Steve Bannon, then still Breitbart’s executive chair, remained closely tied to Donald Trump and wasn’t worth alienating. In another instance, the person says, Kaplan defended one of his decisions by warning against giving offense to “Don Jr.,” the president’s oldest son. (When asked about the whistleblower’s allegations, Dani Lever referred WIRED to a statement Kaplan provided to The Washington Post for its story about the affidavit last fall: “I have consistently pushed for fair treatment of all publishers, irrespective of ideological viewpoint, and advised that analytical and methodological rigor is especially important when it comes to algorithmic changes.”)
Some in the DC office thought Kaplan’s sensitivity belied a deeper anxiety: His team did not fully have a grasp on Trumpworld. In 2017, Kaplan’s Republican deputies had briefly courted Corey Lewandowski—Trump’s bruising and controversial former campaign manager—for a possible consulting role. “The idea was to get somebody who can be the bridge between the company and the White House,” says one former staffer, “so we’re not ‘poking the bear.’”
The whistleblower told me: “Anything that might make the [Trump] administration angry, Joel would ultimately wind up saying, ‘This is going to incense the administration. We don’t want to get on their bad side.’ And veto it.” Many have pointed to Kaplan’s advisory role, noting that final decisions are ultimately made by Zuckerberg. But on questions of white-listing and down-ranking, the person says, “Joel effectively had the final say.”
“Joel was the stumbling block and the halting mechanism of nearly every chance we had to clean up the platform,” the whistle-blower told me. “He was the guy who stopped it.”
When the Cambridge Analytica scandal arrived in March 2018, Facebook’s leaders went silent for five days. The country was riveted by the tale of furtive characters who had pilfered some 87 million users’ data and claimed to have influenced the 2016 presidential election for Donald Trump. In the coming weeks, Kaplan would cycle in and out of a Menlo Park “war room,” charting a strategy with Zuckerberg and Sandberg. Then came Zuckerberg’s televised hearing in Washington before the Senate. Kaplan, an impresario of congressional testimony, took a central role in preparing the CEO. That spring Kaplan’s staff fanned out across the capital, devouring intelligence from elected officials like a massive data crawler. They presented Zuckerberg with hundreds of pages of material—expected questions, well-crafted answers—while Kaplan encouraged consultants, who played congressmembers during brutal prep sessions, to grill him. In the words of one participant, Kaplan wanted Zuckerberg “to train harder than you play.”
Later that year, Kaplan would also help someone else prepare for a congressional grilling. In June, his old friend Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. Some in the company knew about the two families’ close relationship. (“We share our families,” Kaplan’s wife, Laura, would say. “We shared our kids’ bicycle crashes, their broken bones.”) But Kaplan’s involvement ran deeper than most realized. The night before Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, Kaplan worked the phones in Washington’s rarefied legal channels, whipping up support for Kavanaugh, according to the author Ruth Marcus. And around the time Trump announced the nomination, the Kavanaughs went over to stay at the Kaplans’, two blocks away in Chevy Chase, to avoid notice by the press. Kaplan also dropped by on a “murder board” session, where Kavanaugh took questions from mock senators. Those involved in the nomination describe Kaplan as a cheery ballast and informal adviser—including when allegations emerged from Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when the two were minors.
Those at Facebook unfamiliar with this backstory received a rude awakening on September 27, when Kavanaugh defended himself with thunderous testimony in the Senate—as the Kaplans sat just two rows behind him. Kaplan’s staff watched from the DC office in bewildered silence, stunned to see their boss on television, inserting himself into one of the most fraught moments in recent US political history. “There was a collective gasp. What is happening?” recalls one female Facebooker, who watched in the DC office. Says another: “It was just dark.”
A week later, at a company all-hands meeting, Kaplan appeared by videostream. Looking contrite, he apologized for the surprise his appearance had caused, but explained that he had an obligation to the Kavanaugh family. For the next hour, staff took to the microphone to excoriate Kaplan, including some women who tearfully recounted their experiences of sexual assault, while their boss sat in silence. “All that was missing was the dunce cap,” says one female staffer.
In a separate open-air session that Kaplan convened for Policy staff in DC, one woman asked a searing question: How could women feel comfortable reporting harassment to Kaplan after his appearance? Kaplan said his door was open to anyone who wished to talk—and several took him up. “This is one of my best friends,” one staffer recalls Kaplan explaining during a private meeting. “It was important for me to step up for him.”
Kaplan gave staff the impression that he wasn’t aware of the fire-and-brimstone testimony Kavanaugh would unload. The day before the hearing, however, Kaplan stopped by Kavanaugh’s chambers, where the judge was finalizing his remarks. According to a source with knowledge of the meeting, Kaplan entered Kavanaugh’s office and closed the door, where the two talked for about 15 minutes. Facebookers scarcely needed proof of collaboration; many soon denounced Kaplan as though he’d written the testimony himself. Even Democrats who thought poorly of Kaplan’s decision detected opportunism in the pile-on. “People were taking out their frustration about what was happening with Kavanaugh on Joel,” Patterson says. “That was bullshit.” But the Kavanaugh affair would permanently frame Kaplan’s persona among company employees, many of whom had previously never heard his name. It did not improve matters when, the day after his apology, Kaplan hosted a victory celebration for Kavanaugh at the Kaplans’ $4 million home. (Later, the Kaplans requested that their house, like that of the nearby Kavanaughs, be blurred on Google Maps.)
The Kavanaugh ordeal initiated a new phase in Washington, in which Facebook found itself doing battle on three fronts. On the left, the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would spearhead an antitrust investigation. From the right came growing charges of conservative bias and threats from President Trump. In the background churned a probe by the FTC into Cambridge Analytica. Increasingly, Zuckerberg would take on a far more active role as Facebook’s emissary in DC. It was Kaplan, several people told me, who helped make this implausible metamorphosis a reality.
In 2019, Kaplan’s staff worked up an idea: Zuckerberg would host a series of private dinners with politicians and intellectuals. The list of invitees was a closely held secret. But when Democrats in the office got a whiff they thought it leaned strikingly conservative. There were progressive leaders of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Urban League. But at least eight conservatives ended up accepting offers, including Ben Shapiro, Hugh Hewitt, and Senator Lindsey Graham, each dining privately with Zuckerberg in California. Plotting the guest list, Harbath told me, was in part a collaboration between Zuckerberg and Kaplan. Zuckerberg “was willing to try to understand where the right was coming from in terms of their concerns,” a task Harbath describes as “holding the polarities in trying to find the right path forward.” Kaplan, she says, “helped him to hold that polarity.”
The strategy toward the left, several Democrats at Facebook thought, was chillier. In May 2019, a doctored video that made House speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk went viral on Facebook. Posted by a right-wing news site, it quickly attracted 2 million views. While Facebook leadership deliberated whether to take the video down, Kaplan and his deputies reminded Zuckerberg and Sandberg that it was important Facebook appear politically neutral, according to The New York Times. After two days, Zuckerberg decided to leave the video up.
Facebook’s Democrats were appalled. One Facebook staffer called up Patterson in tears: Washington Democrats now viewed her staying at the company as a sign of disloyalty. Though Pelosi never formally commented on the video, she swiftly issued an unheard-of ban, barring any Facebook staff from having contact with the speaker’s office.
Facebook’s thick-skinned operatives were used to losing battles. But several now squinted to understand a political risk strategy that entailed courting Ben Shapiro but alienating the speaker of the House. That year, Facebook’s DC staff invited a Democratic lawmaker to dine with Zuckerberg. The legislator rejected their repeated offers, according to someone familiar with the exchange. “They tried to do a charm offensive. ‘Come have dinner at his place, with his wife! Sheryl can come!’” the person recounted. The lawmaker said, “I don’t want to meet with him. We’re not friends.”
Kaplan’s role in the Pelosi video, however, may be misunderstood. Four people, including one with direct knowledge of the discussion, say that during their final deliberation Kaplan told Zuckerberg he thought the video should come down, advocating for a new policy that would curtail certain types of “manipulated media.” If true, it would reveal an altogether different kind of character insight, because Kaplan has passively allowed the alternative story to permeate Washington. Why not quietly correct the record? “That will never happen. Joel will take the hit,” Patterson says. Kaplan was Facebook’s Marine. “His role is to serve Mark. If that means owning the decisions, then so be it.” Through eight years with Bush and 10 with Zuckerberg, Harbath says, Kaplan’s guiding principle was the same: “Protect the principal.”
Serving the principal, however, could often net far-reaching, unintended consequences. In early 2019, the Civic Integrity team deployed a new automated protocol in India to combat what it called “civic spam”—material that didn’t rise to the level of coordinated inauthentic behavior but that amplified political messages in manipulative, low-quality ways, using tricks and deception to drive clicks. In the run-up to India’s general elections, this new enforcement protocol throttled hundreds of pages across the Indian political spectrum—but pages associated with the country’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, the BJP, seemed to suffer a disproportionate impact. (In an article about Facebook’s enforcement action, one Indian news outlet compared its effect on BJP pages to the snap of Thanos’ fingers in Avengers: Infinity War.) Concerns about the protocol were escalated to Kaplan, who wanted to know why Facebook was demoting allies of the most popular political party in the social network’s largest national market. (“Mark cared a lot about India,” explains a former senior Policy staffer, and “Joel had to work with that.”)
Days before the Indian election began on April 11, Kaplan and Rosen together ordered a platform-wide freeze on enforcing rules against civic spam and domestic CIB—another tripwire that had caught many sites in Facebook’s Indian crackdown. The freeze on domestic CIB lasted approximately three months, and on civic spam six months, according to four people with knowledge of the events. In the interim, Kaplan personally directed employees to investigate the civic spam classifier. When applied experimentally on the United States, the classifier began flagging right-leaning publishers like the Daily Wire and Sinclair, former staffers say.
When enforcement of both civic spam and domestic CIB finally resumed, new internal protocols made it harder to snag violations, several people told WIRED. Now, to be considered a perpetrator of inauthentic behavior, users were required to have a prior history of serious content offenses, like graphic violence, incitement, or terrorism. The new bar for domestic CIB was similarly higher—“so it would be ultra-defensible,” a knowledgeable person says, “to anyone who said, ‘Why are you taking us down?’”
According to some staffers, this pattern of response—freeze, appease, water down—prevented Facebook from learning important lessons. “The coordinated authentic behavior that we were seeing in India is something that became an issue, very clearly, in the US, in 2020,” Harbath told me. Assuredly, it would be an enormous challenge to draw a line against the activities of these semi-authentic networks. But they were challenges the company seemed too eager to defer. “We’re just like, we don’t even want to touch it,” Harbath recalls. “Perhaps if we had taken more time to actually do that—not only in the Indian context but in the US context—would the company have been a little bit more prepared to know what to do around the Stop the Steal stuff and January 6?” She paused. “I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s something I still think about.”
Last summer, representative David Cicilline was sitting at the center of his high-ceilinged office in the Rayburn Building, searching for an analogy. A few weeks earlier, he and his House Judiciary Committee cochair, Ken Buck, a Republican, had led the committee to vote on the first significant antitrust legislation in more than a century. “It’s David and Goliaths, plural,” Cicilline finally said. “No one’s been successful taking them on. Because, one, they have monopoly power and, two, almost unlimited resources.”
In 2019, Cicilline and Buck embarked on a 16-month investigation into Facebook and other tech companies, which culminated in a 450-page report. The probe provided then unprecedented visibility into the inner workings of Facebook, from which the representatives procured more than 100,000 documents. Studying the company’s power up close “created for me this profound sense of urgency,” Cicilline said. “They can hire every lobbyist available in this entire city. And maybe they have.”
Several Capitol Hill veterans eschewed the word “lobbying,” instead describing Facebook’s campaign as a series of bull’s-eye rings radiating outward in a broad-ranging influence network. At the outer rings of Facebook’s reach were think tanks, trade groups, and academic programs that the company finances—a phenomenon that leery Hill staffers call “shadow influence.” Another circle were lawyers: Facebook directly employs more than 1,000 attorneys, according to people familiar with the company’s dealings. The next ring in are lobbyists: 30 outside firms, to which Facebook has paid more than $11 million in the past three years.
At the center of the bull’s-eye is Kaplan’s staff. There, the term “lobbyist” is elided in favor of titles like “public policy manager,” although former staffers say the work is much the same. Beginning in 2019, Facebook began a concerted hiring spree. “Facebook just Hoover-vacuums up Hill staff,” one committee staffer told me. Another Senate staffer ticked through the colleagues lost to Facebook, naming their former offices like conquered Pacific islands: Feingold, Clyburn, Pelosi, Burr. In June 2020, Buck was in the middle of the House antitrust probe when his chief of staff resigned—moving to Facebook to become a public policy manager.
The suction of Facebook’s vacuum has created mild paranoia: Congressional staffers recounted stories of sensitive communications leaked to Facebook, sometimes within minutes. Cicilline says that when the committee sent out final drafts of its legislation of Facebook, the company had already possessed them for two weeks. “So they have friends all over,” Cicilline said with a thin smile.
But during the first year of the Biden administration, the Judiciary bills—six in total—were only the start of Facebook’s challenges. Biden has appointed Facebook critics to key roles in the White House, the Department of Justice, and the FTC. In Congress, more than three dozen bills have targeted Facebook and Big Tech. The efforts have reflected an unusually bipartisan spirit. “You have this wide range of conservative folks agreeing with Democrats on the issue of monopoly power,” says one senior Republican staffer, who listed the odd couples married by tech regulation: Cotton and Klobuchar, Blumenthal and Blackburn, Buck and Cicilline. Lawmakers, the staffer adds, are no longer “afraid of the lobbying arm of Facebook.”
Facebook’s strategy in the Biden era, according to current and former staff, has been to convince Washington that it is open to regulation, to win favor with the Biden White House, and to otherwise attract as little attention as possible. Political success for Facebook is defined by “stuff that just doesn’t happen,” explains a former Facebook staffer in DC. Instead, in 2021, Washington became the scene of what were perhaps the two biggest scandals in Facebook’s history: those surrounding the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the revelations of whistle-blower and former Civic Integrity staffer Frances Haugen. “You take those out and it was a good year for Facebook,” one former Facebooker says with bitter sarcasm.
Advocating on behalf of Facebook in a Washington run by Democrats has not been for the fainthearted. “Because the relationship is so toxic, it’s hard to communicate with them,” says Patterson. In 2021, Facebook began a search to replace US Policy director Kevin Martin. The company reportedly contacted several prominent Democrats, including former Obama counselor Valerie Jarrett. Failing to find a suitable Democrat for the job, Facebook quietly reinstated Martin in December. “The thing to draw out of that,” says one Hill staffer who has dealt extensively with Facebook, “is that the hatred toward Facebook is extreme.”
Regulation is not the only peril awaiting Facebook in Washington. Multiple lawsuits continue to dredge up various scandals from Facebook’s past. One of them, a suit brought by the office of DC attorney general Karl Racine, has sought to subpoena documents and emails that it believes will show Kaplan “exercised significant decisionmaking authority regarding the Cambridge Analytica events.” During the discovery phase, Racine sought to publicize an internal email, which Facebook urged a judge to keep under seal. According to two people familiar with its contents, the email shows that worries over Cambridge Analytica first emerged in Facebook’s DC headquarters in September 2015. That month, a DC employee named James Barnes flagged the “sketchy” data-mining company and urged Facebook “to investigate what Cambridge specifically is actually doing.” (Approached by WIRED, Barnes confirmed he was the person in the email.) Racine is now seeking access to more emails on the grounds that Kaplan’s communications are “crucial to understanding what (and when) Facebook knew.” (Lever points to previous statements saying that the company first learned about the improper sale of data only that December.)
But a more hazardous inquiry for Facebook may concern the more recent past. Throughout 2021, the DC office was “more worried about the January 6 commission than the Cicilline bills,” a former staffer there says. This year, Facebook was served subpoenas by the House Select Committee’s investigation of the Capitol attack. The committee has not publicly stated what, precisely, it is seeking to uncover. But previous requests by Congress provide a clue. A few weeks after January 6, the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested internal documents on what the company knew about the platform’s effect on polarization. It also sought a full audit of the Common Ground program and Kaplan’s involvement in scuttling it. “Long before the siege of the Capitol,” the committee leaders wrote to the company, “certain Facebook executives—including Joel Kaplan—regularly balked at implementing reforms.”
“The concern is they start asking for hard data on Stop the Steal,” the former DC Facebook staffer says. Around Washington, the company’s strategy has involved channeling a willingness to cooperate, “but also doing anything we could to make sure the focus stayed on the groups themselves—the actual Proud Boys, and all those people—as opposed to Facebook being a villain.”
Facebook’s effort to avoid the limelight lasted until September 13, 2021, when it first became apparent that Frances Haugen had turned over thousands of company documents. The trove, one former Facebooker explains, was “a major turning point for Congress”—which was suddenly in possession of all the documentation it would likely ever need.
Haugen’s documents paint a tumultuous retrospective picture of Facebook during 2020, as the conflict between Kaplan’s Policy team and Civic Integrity escalated. In June of that year, Facebook’s now-departed head of Civic Integrity, Samidh Chakrabarti, posted an internal memo, previously reported by BuzzFeed News, explaining his colleagues’ concerns about the influence of the Policy team. Integrity staff “feel pressure to ensure their recommendations align with the interests of policymakers,” Chakrabarti wrote, adding, “As long as this is the case, we will be prematurely prioritizing regulatory interests over community protection.” In August, a Civic Integrity researcher resigned and penned a farewell memo: “Integrity teams are facing increasing barriers to building safeguards,” the person wrote, their product recommendations “prematurely stifled or severely constrained” by deference to the Policy team. In December, a data scientist penned a similar resignation memo, explaining that the company “routinely makes decisions about algorithms based on input from Public Policy.” Those on Kaplan’s team, the person added, “commonly veto launches” that were shown to negatively affect “politically sensitive actors.”
Several of these discarded proposals are confirmed in Haugen’s documents, and they littered the path to Election Day 2020. One of them, Correct the Record, would have notified users when they engaged with false news stories. Another would have demoted so-called hate bait, content designed to provoke rage. Both were either vetoed or watered down after the Policy team cited the disproportionate impact on conservative users and publishers, according to reporting from The New York Times. In June, the Civic Integrity team proposed tackling “newsworthy violations”—creating anti-viral friction that could slow down disinformation fanned by public figures, such as falsehoods about the coming election. The proposal was rebuffed by Zuckerberg and Policy staff, according to another report by The Information. Facebook’s emergency measure to stop recommending political groups, which research had shown was brewing extremism ahead of the election, was delayed for months until two weeks before Election Day; Policy staffers expressed fears that the measure “would have created thrash in the political ecosystem,” according to one internal document. (Haugen's documents were provided to WIRED by Joan Donovan, a scholar of populist online movements at Harvard, who's developing a publicly available tool to keyword-search their thousands of pages.)
Former Civic Integrity staffers described these and other decisions as fortuitous in the chronology of Donald Trump’s campaign to undermine the election. “We are screaming, ‘Don’t you see what’s coming?’ And then were just ignored,” says one. (Dani Lever referred WIRED to a previous statement that the company “spent more than two years preparing for the 2020 election,” and “in phasing in and then adjusting additional measures before, during, and after the election, we took into account specific on-platforms signals and information from our ongoing, regular engagement with law enforcement.”) There was another factor to the Policy team’s influence, several say. Over time, Kaplan’s philosophy induced product managers to “self-censor,” former Facebookers said. “Many things that Product conceived were preemptively killed: ‘This isn’t feasible. We’ll never get this past policy.’” Kaplan exerted a gravity felt so intensely, the person explains, that he “didn’t have to be in the room.”
For researchers who have tried to measure the effect of the Policy team’s influence, one statistic spoke loudly. Researchers at New York University have found that in the weeks before both the election and the January 6 attack, the Facebook news pages that regularly published political misinformation received six times more engagement than others—with far-right publishers receiving the greatest share by a margin of 39 percent. “It comes back to Kaplan,” Hany Farid says. “There’s a really small number of people that have this outsize impact. But those people are also really good for business.”
And yet throughout 2020, Facebook’s clout with Trump’s Washington was beginning to unravel. During the Trump era, Kaplan’s DC team had catered to the most intimate priorities of the first family, bolstering Trump’s opioid strategy, partnering with Melania Trump’s “Be Best” anti-bullying campaign, and swiftly shutting down fake accounts impersonating the Trumps’ young son, Barron. Zuckerberg had dined privately with Trump at the White House, and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had looked forward to his DC visits, White House officials told me.
But as Kaplan himself had told Parscale and McDaniel, the enforcement measures against conservative media weren’t entirely imaginary. Trumpworld conservatives coined a term for the diminished reach of certain posts—“shadow-banning.” When Facebook joined Twitter in limiting the traffic to a story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter, two weeks before Election Day, it was the nadir of a relationship that had been deteriorating since Zuckerberg’s urgent phone call to the White House in May. Kaplan’s Republican bona fides, meanwhile, meant less in a party refashioned by Trump; calling Kaplan a Republican was “like saying they had a conservative because they had Meghan McCain,” one senior Trump official says sneeringly. “Joel’s conservative credentials couldn’t make up for what the company was doing."
Today, relations with the Biden administration hardly appear to be faring better. When Haugen’s revelations first arrived, Facebookers in DC who engaged with lawmakers worked to spin an unfavorable narrative about the whistleblower. Few think it was effective. In March 2022, during President Biden’s State of the Union address, he singled out Haugen—seated in the House Gallery as a personal guest of the First Lady—as he excoriated Facebook for the “national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” prompting a standing ovation. “Thank you for the courage you showed!” he shouted. As one former Facebook official says flatly, “There is no bigger insult.” Biden’s comments have only amplified the enthusiasm for new legislation. “It’s our Big Tobacco moment,” says one Hill staffer, a Republican. In his address, Biden called for legislation to strengthen privacy and ban targeted advertising to children. The call seemed tailor-made to Republican senators, who have cosponsored bills on the subject with Democrats.
Facebook had come far from the days of private dinners and calling in presidential favors. One Republican Senate staffer called it “a case of managing to put the car in both the left and the right ditch.” But few Congressional leaders seemed preoccupied with reveling in Facebook’s ignominy; most were busy with bill markups and holding hearings, with an eye on the calendar before the midterms this fall. “This is the window,” a senior House staffer told me. “We’ve got one shot.”
The car may be stuck in both the left and right ditches, but Kaplan will remain a part of Facebook for the foreseeable future, current and former employees say. Colleagues describe his job as immeasurably draining. Kaplan has told some coworkers he requires Benadryl every night in order to sleep, and rarely misses a day at work without taking Advil. “He sucks in all this stress,” a former colleague says. “He’s under a ton of scrutiny.”
Kaplan remains as divisive as he is inscrutable. For most people at the company, Patterson says, “Joel is this enigma.” Is he an equitable deliberator? Or a partisan Republican? (“Not just a Republican—a Republican rat fuck,” one Democratic staffer chafes. “This is the Brooks Brothers mafia we’re talking about.”)
Like many Democrats fond of Kaplan, Patterson has ruminated over this question. In the early days of his tenure at Facebook, when Kaplan was given to roaming the office, peering over his reading glasses, DC staffers took up freewheeling debates about sensitive topics. The discussions “weren’t rooted in ‘Which office is going to call and complain about it?’” Patterson recalls. “It was rooted in ‘What are our values?’” But as the company grew, more and more decisions were made “in the black box, at the top.” The black box posed its own kind of riddle, with numerous former colleagues pondering the same question: Who was Kaplan, really, once he stepped inside it?
Outside the black box, many colleagues view Kaplan as a seasoned leader in an impossible job. “He’s not some wizard behind a curtain,” says Harbath, who points out that decisions still come down to Zuckerberg. She added that “anybody that’s going to be running the Content Policy team is going to have a target on their back.” Democrats in the office also credit Kaplan for seeking out their views. “He really does deliberate,” Patterson says. “I don’t know a lot of bosses that would be comfortable having a midlevel person come in and say, ‘You’re doing it wrong, dude,’ and listen and laugh, and then come back and ask my opinion on other things.”
During the George Floyd protests, on the day of Trump’s looting-and-shooting post, a group of Black Facebook staffers met secretly by video. Some were crying. When one of them accused Kaplan of being the problem, Patterson spoke up to defend him. Privately, she says, Kaplan had been adamant with her that he personally believed Trump’s post was “horrible” and wasn't what he wanted to see on Facebook. As much as anything, Kaplan’s longevity was explained by the profound loyalty he inspired from staff. When Patterson, one of the few Black women in the office, was errantly passed over for a leadership position that she’d worked for years to get, she confided in Kaplan, who immediately reversed the decision. “He said, ‘I do not ever want you feeling this way,’” Patterson says, as she recalls the story with tears in her eyes. But when she later read news reports that Kaplan’s team had advocated protecting Trump’s post after all, it left her head spinning. What really took place inside the black box? “I actually can’t stop thinking about it,” she says. “It’s given me pause about how I see him.”
A few weeks after the looting-and-shooting debacle, at an all-hands meeting, staff questioned Zuckerberg directly about Kaplan’s power—inquiring whether he might wield excessive influence at the company. Zuckerberg dodged the question, stressing the importance of “a good diversity of views.”
But Kaplan’s viewpoint is less of an issue, many think, than the controls at his fingertips. Facebook is alone among big tech companies in routing both its government affairs activities and its content decisions through the desk of the same person. Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook election integrity official who has criticized the Policy team’s heavy hand in elections-related content enforcement, argued for clearer separation between the two. “Isn’t it inappropriate that people who are in charge of lobbying government officials should also have influence on company decisions that could affect those individuals?” she asks. Eisenstat is not alone. Countless times throughout 2020, Facebook staff—including Civic Integrity’s director and its lead engineer—openly called to “separate content policy [from] public policy,” according to the Facebook Papers. As Chakrabarti wrote, taking Facebook’s “content policy team and making them an independent org”—that is, out of Kaplan’s hands—“is one of the most important reforms we can consider.”
As long as Kaplan wields influence in both realms, many think, he will be stalked by a cloud of suspicion—including over his role in the events leading up to January 6. “So much of the planning took place on this platform that they are basically ground zero,” says a senior aide to a US senator, who has been reviewing the Facebook Papers. “It seems consistently that Joel Kaplan has intervened at key decision points to either completely reject those types of interventions or to moderate them to the point of ineffectualness.” (“The notion that the January 6 insurrection would not have happened but for Facebook is absurd,” the company wrote in a statement, adding that responsibility “lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them.”)
The true weight of Kaplan’s decisions will almost surely remain a matter of permanent dispute. An attorney who has worked on tech issues says bluntly, “You can draw a pretty straight line from allowing Joel Kaplan to influence their moderation decisions to what happened on January 6.” Researchers, however, are more circumspect: If there is any connection to be drawn, it’s that Kaplan’s legacy runs so deep as to be indistinguishable from the architecture of Facebook itself. Joan Donovan told me that years of decisions bearing Kaplan's fingerprints had made Facebook vulnerable to abuse in 2020. Instead of “Russian IRA pages,” she says, “you have a bunch of people using their own identities to say that Pence must be hanged and ‘destroy the GOP’ and that they’re going to go to the Capitol in support of Trumpism,” Donovan says. Blurry rules and a reluctance to halt an authentic movement, Donovan believes, had made Stop the Steal an impossible problem for Facebook.
As it happens, Facebook’s internal review team, tasked with assessing the roots of January 6 on the platform, came to a similar conclusion. In a memo titled “Stop the Steal and Patriot Party,” the team identified a crucial blind spot: the problem of authenticity. As Stop the Steal experienced “meteoric” growth, monitors could not decide “whether what we were seeing was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election, or whether it was protected free expression by users who were afraid and confused.” Only after rioters had been cleared from the Capitol Building did Facebook appear to realize the answer could be both. As the authors lamented, the company had “little policy around coordinated authentic harm,” though it was essentially the same problem that Civic Integrity had flagged from its first days: What to do when the state turns the powers of disinformation against its own people? The authors concluded, with genuine confusion, “What do we do when that authentic movement espouses hate, or deligitimizes free elections?”—when it doesn’t believe fake news to be fake?
On the morning of January 6, Patterson had turned the TV to CNN. By around that time, she had come to the conclusion that Kaplan was neither heroic nor malign, but a paradox. He was Facebook’s Socratic deliberator and also its regimented Marine. And he had embraced people that seemed, at times, unconscionable. Left unresolved was why. “Is he really trying to embrace folks he’s worked with his whole life, in a legitimate way?” she asks. “Or is he trying to dive on the grenade?”
Just after 1 pm that day, Mayco Villafaña settled into his living room in Miami. He watched as Trump told his followers to march. Comparing the spectacle to what he witnessed at the Clark Center two decades ago, he later told me, “The playbook is the same, except on a larger scale. And you have to ask yourself: Why not? If it worked once, why not again?” By 1:30, rioters had cornered the Capitol Police. They had not come with blazers and clipboards, but with commando vests and zip ties. From inside the Willard Hotel, where Trump allies had set up a war room, Roger Stone monitored the scene. Looking at its own policies and staff, Facebook’s internal review team would later conclude that no one in the company had the personal knowledge to be able to assess where Stop the Steal was headed. The effort to “delegitimize” a presidential election, they wrote, was “new territory.”
Forty minutes later, the last barricade was breached. As the bloodshed unfurled, Kaplan spent the day in a storm of meetings and videoconferences with company leaders. “He was cool as a cucumber,” says one person who spoke to Kaplan that day. “He was as Joel as ever. Not commenting too much, answering, responding—just enough to get you to express more. And not sharing an opinion.” As the unthinkable unfolded at the Capitol, the person recalled the meeting when Kaplan gave a pass to then long-shot candidate Trump’s proposal of a Muslim ban. “Now you’ve got real people in harm’s way,” they said. “‘Oh, don’t poke the bear!’ Well,” the person continued, “this is how it ends.”
Working from home across DC, Facebook staff frantically messaged and called one another. Several texted with members of Congress and staff, confirming their safety. Patterson watched the chaos unfold and instantly knew Facebook would be blamed. So did Harbath. “My first thought was, is my staff here in DC safe?” Harbath recalls.
But Harbath hadn’t heard from Kaplan. In the Washington office, almost no one had. For several hours that day, as smoke rose from Capitol Hill and dusk turned to evening, staffers wondered what Facebook’s global vice president was doing, and with whom he was speaking. Where was Joel Kaplan, leader of men? For a time, no one could be quite sure.
Updated 3/10/2022 4:15 pm ET: This story has been updated to further clarify Meta's statement about Mark Zuckerberg's call with White House staff on May 29, 2020.
Updated 3/14/2022 3:30 pm ET: This story has been updated to note that Chakrabarti's June 2020 internal memo and the July 2020 Workplace message about Breitbart were first reported by BuzzFeed News.
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