Facebook gives high-profile users special treatment, which includes immunity from its rules for some, and allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to a report.
The XCheck or “CrossCheck” system steers reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists into a separate system, according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal. Under the programme, some users are “whitelisted” – not subject to enforcement action – while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules, pending content reviews that often do not take place.
People are placed on the XCheck list – where they are given special scrutiny – if they meet criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”. Names on the XCheck programme included Donald Trump, US senator Elizabeth Warren and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, although the report does not state whether those names were whitelisted at any point. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, the Wall Street Journal said.
In one example cited by the WSJ, Brazilian football star Neymar responded to a rape accusation in 2019 by posting Facebook and Instagram videos defending himself, which included showing viewers his WhatsApp correspondence with his accuser. The WhatsApp clips included the accuser’s name and nude photos of her. Instagram and WhatsApp are owned by Facebook.
Instead of immediately deleting the material, which is Facebook’s procedure for “nonconsensual intimate imagery”, moderators were blocked for more than a day from removing the video, according to the WSJ.
An internal review of the Neymar posts found that the video was viewed 56m times on Facebook and Instagram before its removal. A separate internal document described the posts as “revenge porn”.
The internal review stated that the woman faced bullying and harassment online over the posts and that Neymar was not subject to the normal Facebook procedure for someone who posts unauthorised nude photos, which is to have their account deleted.
“After escalating the case to leadership we decided to leave Neymar’s accounts active, a departure from our usual ‘one strike’ profile disable policy,” the review said.
Neymar denied the rape allegation and no charges were filed against the footballer. His accuser was charged in Brazil with fraud, extortion and slander. The slander and extortion charges were dismissed in 2019 and she was acquitted of the fraud charge in 2020.
A spokesperson for Neymar told the WSJ that the footballer adheres to Facebook’s rules and declined to comment further.
The WSJ investigation details the process known as “whitelisting”, where some high-profile accounts are not subject to enforcement at all. An internal review in 2019 stated that whitelists “pose numerous legal, compliance, and legitimacy risks for the company and harm to our community”. The review found favouritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible”.
“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”
According to another internal document, enforcement procedures and rule-drafting were subject to interventions from members of Facebook’s public-policy team and senior executives. One 2020 memo from a Facebook data scientist added: “Facebook routinely makes exceptions for powerful actors.”
The WSJ also reported that the system suffered from enforcement delays that allowed posts to stay up before they were eventually prohibited. In 2020, posts being reviewed by XCheck were viewed at least 16.4bn times before being removed.
A March memo revealed that Facebook was struggling to limit the number of users on the XCheck list. “VIP lists continue to grow,” a product manager on Facebook’s Mistakes Prevention Team wrote.
A Facebook spokesperson said criticisms of how XCheck was used were “fair” but the system had been created to deal with content that could require “more understanding” such as reports from conflict zones.
“A lot of this internal material is outdated information stitched together to create a narrative that glosses over the most important point: Facebook itself identified the issues with cross check and has been working to address them. We’ve made investments, built a dedicated team, and have been redesigning cross check to improve how the system operates.”