Facebook (and now, Meta) might just be experiencing its most sustained and intense attack of bad press ever titled as Papers. As a result to whistleblower Frances Haugen and the thousands of documents she spirited out of the company.
The Wall Street Journal was the first publication to report on the contents of the documents. And this have also been turned over to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since then, the documents have made their way into the hands of more than a dozen publications that formed “a consortium,” much to the dismay of Facebook’s PR department.
There have now been more than a hundred stories based on the documents. And while many of those reference the same documents, the details are significant. But as important as they are, it’s also a dizzying amount of information.
There are detailed documents written by the company’s researchers, free-form notes and memos. As well as comments and other posts in Workplace, the internal version of Facebook used by its employees. This mix of sources, together with the fact that the consortium has not released most of the documents to researchers or other journalists, makes the Facebook Papers difficult to parse.
Gizmodo has been publishing some of the underlying documents, but new revelations could be trickling out for weeks or months as the material becomes more widely distributed. But amid all that noise, a few key themes have emerged. Many of which have also been backed up by prior reporting on the company and its policies.
Facebook Allowing Politics Influence its Decision
This likely won’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed Facebook over the last five years or so. But the Facebook Papers add new evidence to years-long allegations that Mark Zuckerberg and other company leaders allowed politics to influence their decisions.
One of the first stories to break from Haugen’s disclosures (via The Wall Street Journal) included details about Facebook’s “cross check” program. And which allowed politicians, celebrities and other VIPs to skirt the company’s rules.
The initial motivation for the program? To avoid the “PR fires” that may occur if the social network were to mistakenly remove something from a famous person’s account. In another document, also reported by The Journal, a researcher on Facebook’s integrity team complained that the company had made “special exceptions” for right-wing publisher Brietbart.
The publication, part of Facebook’s official News Tab, also had “managed partner” status, which may have helped the company avoid consequences for sharing misinformation.
Facebook Policies Said To Favor Conservatives
At the same time, while Facebook’s policies were often perceived internally as putting their thumb on the scale in favor of conservatives, Zuckerberg has also been accused of shelving ideas that could have been perceived as benefiting Democrats.
The CEO was personally involved in killing a proposal to put a Spanish language version of its voting information center into WhatsApp ahead of the 2020 presidential election, The Washington Post reported. Zuckerberg reportedly said the plan wasn’t “politically neutral.”
Facebook Has Serious Moderation Failures Outside the US and Europe
Some of the most damning revelations in the Facebook Papers relate to how the social network handles moderation and safety issues in countries outside of the United States and Europe.
The mere fact that Facebook is prone to overlook countries that make up its “rest of world” metrics is not necessarily new. The company’s massive failure in Myanmar, where Facebook-fueled hate helped incite a genocide, has been well documented for years.
Yet a 2020 document noted the company still has “significant gaps” in its ability to detect hate speech and other rule-breaking content on its platform. According to Reuters, the company’s AI detection tools known as “classifiers” aren’t able to identify misinformation in Burmese.
Unfortunately, Myanmar is far from the only country where Facebook’s under-investment in moderation has contributed to real-world violence. CNN notes that Facebook’s own employees have been warning that the social network is being abused by “problematic actors” to incite violence in Ethiopia. Yet Facebook lacked the automated tools to detect hate speech and other inciting content even though it had determined the country was one of the most “at risk” countries.
Facebook Has Misled Authorities and the Public about Its Worst Problems
Lawmakers, activists and other watchdogs have long suspected that Facebook knows far more about issues like misinformation, radicalization and other major problems than it publicly lets on.
But many documents within the Facebook Papers paint a startling picture of just how much the company’s researchers know, often long before issues have boiled over into major scandals. That knowledge is often directly at odds with what company officials have publicly claimed.
Facebook Has Misled Advertisers and Shareholders
These are the allegations that could end up being some of the most consequential because they show serious problems affecting the company’s core business and could tie into any future SEC action.
Instagram has long been viewed as a bright spot for Facebook in terms of attracting the teens and younger users Facebook needs to grow. But increasingly, teens and younger users are spending more time and creating more content in competing apps like TikTok. The issue is even more stark for Facebook, where “teen and young adult DAU [daily active users] has been in decline since 2012/2013,” according to a slide shared by Bloomberg.
Zuckerberg Prioritized Growth over Safety
While the Facebook Papers are far from the first time the company has faced accusations that it puts profit ahead of users’ wellbeing, the documents have shed new light on many of those claims.
One point that’s come up repeatedly in the reporting is Zuckerberg’s obsession with MSI, or meaningful social interaction. Facebook retooled its News Feed around the metric in 2018 as a strategy to combat declining engagement.
But the decisions, meant to make sure Facebook users were seeing more content from friends and family, also made the News Feed angrier and more toxic.
What Does All This Means for Facebook
While the Facebook Papers contain a dizzying amount of details about Facebook’s failures and misdeeds, many of the claims are not entirely new allegations. And if there’s one thing Facebook’s history has taught us, it’s that the company has never let a scandal affect its ability to make billions of dollars.
But, there are some signs that Haugen’s disclosures could be different. For one, she has turned over the documents to the SEC, which has the authority to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the company’s actions.
As many experts have pointed out, it’s not clear what could actually come from such an investigation, but it could at the very least force Facebook’s top executives to formally answer detailed questions from the regulator. As Wired points out, the Facebook Papers are full of “badge posts”
Facebook speak for the companywide posts employees write upon their departure from the social network from “dedicated employees who have concluded that change will not come, or who are at least are too burned out to continue fighting for it.”
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