The decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis to order Florida’s top election official to investigate whether Facebook might have violated state voting laws tees up another budding controversy against social media companies, a popular political target for Republicans ahead of next year’s elections.
DeSantis this week instructed Laurel Lee, Florida’s Republican secretary of state, to investigate whether Facebook exempted some of its users from the platform’s own rules, allowing them to post content that would otherwise be blocked or labeled as false.
The disclosure about Facebook’s so-called XCheck program was part of a weeklong series of revelations by the Wall Street Journal based on leaked confidential documents from inside the company. Facebook told the Journal the program was no longer running.
DeSantis – who regularly spars with reporters – has aggressively criticized reporting by national news organizations on other matters, calling such outlets “corporate media” and asserting that their reporting is biased against conservatives.
Citing the Journal’s reporting, the governor late Monday ordered Lee’s office to “use all legal means” to uncover whether Facebook may have violated any Florida election laws, including issuing subpoenas, interviewing witnesses and consulting with law enforcement.
A spokesman for Lee’s office did not immediately return phone calls or emails to discuss the investigation or explain how it might proceed.
Facebook’s XCheck program protected some government officials from punishment when their posts violated community guidelines, the Journal reported. Non-established political challengers were less likely to benefit from these exemptions. Some Facebook employees wondered if the program tipped the scales in favor of incumbent politicians, since they were more likely to be afforded protections than political outsiders.
“If this new report is true, Facebook has violated Florida law to put its thumb on the scale of numerous state and local races,” DeSantis said.
The journal’s reporting mentioned elections only twice, and did not directly claim that Facebook moved the needle on any single local or national election.
DeSantis is running for re-election next year and is widely considered a Republican presidential candidate for the 2024 campaign.
Earlier efforts in Florida to crack down on social media companies and investigate alleged election irregularities haven’t fared well.
A federal judge in June temporarily blocked a new law DeSantis signed earlier this year that would prevent social media companies from disabling the accounts of politicians during elections. The case is now being considered by a federal appeals court in Atlanta.
Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it had closed a criminal investigation into fundraising efforts by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pay the outstanding fines of thousands of felons in Florida seeking to reclaim their voting rights. The agency said it found no violations of election law after DeSantis and his attorney general, Ashley Moody, asked the FDLE and FBI to investigate whether Bloomberg violated state law by offering incentives for voting.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said Facebook’s practices deserve scrutiny and supported the investigation.
“I don’t know that anyone, just because they’ve demonstrated some legitimacy in the past, gets a pass,” Pizzo said in an interview. He added: “I wouldn’t think it’s fair at all that I’m given treatment separate and apart from any challenger.”
Even in Republican circles in Florida, the governor’s announcement wasn’t universally embraced.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said any investigation into Facebook programs should be handled in federal court rather than by a state office or legislature. Brandes was the only Republican senator to vote against the new social media law.
“These questions are larger than a single state,” Brandes said. “I think that when the government starts telling companies what they can and can’t do, what they can and can’t say, it puts us in a terrible place of moving away from a free country.”
Republicans have long accused social media companies of censoring or minimizing conservative content, even as studies show that right-leaning posts and accounts consistently outperform their liberal counterparts on social media.
According to recent polling data, a sizable share of Republican voters holds unfavorable views of large technology firms. Crusades against “Big Tech” companies such as Facebook and Twitter are seen by some GOP representatives as potent methods to increase enthusiasm among their voters.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com