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WhatsApp denies Zuckerberg axed idea to provide users voting information in Spanish

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WhatsApp officials have denied that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg personally killed a plan hatched by employees at the company to provide information to users in Spanish about registering to vote or serving as a poll worker while bragging that it provided that same information to English-speaking users.

The startling accusation, made in The Washington Post based on documents shared with a consortium of news outlets, is the latest look into how Facebook supposedly chose to engage users in the days leading up to the November 2020 US election, which broke the record for most votes cast for a single candidate (now-President Joe Biden).

The Post and other news outlets cited internal Facebook documents to claim that Mr Zuckerberg personally rejected a plan to provide links to voter registration service and opportunities to serve as poll workers via Spanish-speaking chatbots or embedded links on the WhatsApp platform.

Mr Zuckerberg’s reported reasoning for the decision was a desire to appear “politically neutral”, according to the documents. WhatsApp officials have denied that the idea to create a Spanish-language “voting information center” was ever proposed by teams or individuals within the company.

Facebook bragged in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election about how information provided by the company in a notification to US users “helped” states close “their own poll worker gaps”.

“More than 1.7 million people clicked on the notification at the top of the Facebook app to sign up with their state authority. We estimate this helped about 100,000 people sign up as poll workers, based on conversion rates we calculated from a few states we’ve partnered with,” wrote Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s VP of Product and Social Impact, in a blog post published by Facebook just weeks before the November election.

The company previously replied to an emailed inquiry from The Independent late Monday evening, calling the story “false” and asserting that the company provided voter registration information to some Spanish-speaking users before the 2020 election. The Independent has asked for clarification about whether poll worker information was provided in Spanish; that inquiry was not answered in follow-up emails from WhatsApp officials.

"WhatsApp did not propose pushing information to all users, which is not how WhatsApp works. WhatsApp launched a campaign in Spanish and English working with partners at Vote.org and IFCN to encourage voter registration and raise awareness about misinformation,” stated Christian LoNigro, a WhatsApp spokesperson.

WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook in 2014, is widely used among Spanish-speaking communities in the US and throughout South and Central America. An analysis from eMarketer.com in 2019 estimated that at least half of the US Hispanic population uses the app at least monthly.

Its parent company faces a whirlwind of criticism stemming from documents leaked to news outlets by Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at the company, who has stated that the company chased profits on the back of a system that rewarded users for spreading divisive and hateful content, as well as misinformation. The company has strongly pushed back against her claims, and insisted it does everything it can to remove bad actors from its platforms.

News reports in recent days have also sparked criticism and claims that the 6 January attack on the US Capitol was largely planned out in the weeks beforehand on Facebook, a charge the company has also resisted.

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