The Infinite Reach of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Man in Washington

Illustration of Joel Kaplan whispering in the ears of Mark Zuckerberg Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi - Illustration: Jules Julien

The Infinite Reach of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Man in Washington
WIRED, March 18, 2022
By Benjamin Wofford

“How one man came to rule political speech on Facebook, command one of the largest lobbies in DC, and guide Zuck through disaster—and straight into it.”


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.


Kaplan and Zuckerberg in Paris. Getty Images
Kaplan and Zuckerberg in Paris. Getty Images

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.

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About the Author:

Benjamin Wofford is a writer based at Stanford Law School. He has written for Rolling Stone, Vox, Washingtonian, and other magazines.