Internal memos show Facebook knew about flaws and did nothing

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, said that the company was rolling out a significant change to the algorithm that governs its News Feed, in an attempt to encourage more users to interact with content posted by their friends and family, rather than content from professional sources such as news publishers and other brands. One of the reasons for doing this, Zuckerberg said, was a growing body of research showing that consuming mostly content from brands and publishers was not good for the well-being of users. However, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal published on Wednesday, the algorithm change didn’t improve the well-being of users — in fact, it actually had the opposite effect. Internal memos describe how the company’s own researchers said the changes were making the News Feed “an angrier place” by encouraging outrage and sensationalism. And when they suggested changes, Zuckerberg turned them down because they would decrease engagement, the Journal says.

The Facebook researchers “discovered that publishers and political parties were reorienting their posts toward outrage and sensationalism,” the Journal report says, because this generated higher levels of comments and reactions, which the platform uses as indications that a post is successful and should be amplified. “Our approach has had unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content, such as politics and news,” data scientists at the company said in memos that the newspaper was able to read. “This is an increasing liability. Misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares.” These researchers worked on a number of potential changes that they hoped might ameliorate the algorithm’s tendency to reward outrage, the Journal says, but memos show Zuckerberg resisted many of these solutions because he was worried they might lead to people spending less time interacting with content on the platform.

The emails and memos the newspaper quotes from are part of what it calls “an extensive array of internal company communications” that it gained access to (although it’s not clear how), which so far have produced three investigative pieces on the company’s practices, of which the News Feed story is the third. The first, from reporter Jeff Horowitz, described a little-known system within the company that allowed VIPs to avoid any repercussions for breaching the platform’s terms of service. The program, known as XCheck (pronounced cross check) allowed celebrities, politicians, athletes, and other “influencers” to post whatever they wanted, with no consequences. Although an internal Facebook report seen by the Journal referred to “a select few members” as having this ability, the story says that as of last year, close to 6 million people were covered by the XCheck program.

Like the latest piece on Facebook, the second article in the Journal series was also about internal research that has been largely ignored, or at least downplayed by management. That story said that Facebook researchers — in this case, research that showed the image-heavy app Instagram, owned by Facebook, was contributing to mental health and body-image problems among young women. The Journal cited several years worth of Facebook studies that said among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, thirteen percent of British users and six percent of American users traced the issue to Instagram. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the Journal wrote. The company also found that fourteen percent of boys in the US said Instagram made them feel worse. More than forty percent of the app’s users are twenty-two years old or younger, according to the Journal, and the company is reportedly building a version of Instagram specifically for kids under the age of thirteen.

Facebook executives, including Zuckerberg, have seen the research, the Journal says, but not much has come from it in terms of changes to the product. In a blog post responding to the Journal story, Karina Newton, the head of public policy for Instagram, said that the company stands by the research — despite what she called the “negative light” the Journal story cast on it — and that the service is committed to “understanding the complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with.” On Twitter, Alex Stamos, the former head of security for Facebook, said senior executives at the company “built big quantitative social science teams on the belief that knowing what was wrong would lead to positive change [but] those teams have run into the power of the Growth and unified Policy teams.”

Here’s more on Facebook:

A British MP says Facebook should be punished with substantial fines, potentially running into billions of pounds, if it withholds evidence that its social media platforms harm users, according to a report in the Guardian. Damian Collins, the Conservative chair of the joint committee on the draft online safety bill, which imposes a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content, said: “If they have important information like this and they kept that information from the regulator then I think they should be punished. There would be fines. If there are harms being caused and a company is trying to hide that information from the regulator, then that would be quite a serious breach in duty of care.”

Facebook provided data to a group of social scientists last year that had serious errors, the company admitted last Friday. Facebook executives used a regular monthly call with about thirty-five researchers who work with the group, known as Social Science One, to announce this news. The data, which is related to the effect that social media has on elections and democracy, accidentally excluded information from about half of all US users on the platform, the company said. Social Science One was formed in 2018 as a partnership between Facebook and the social-science community, to theoretically make it easier to get access to data from the platform, although many say it has failed to do so.

As the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, the Journal series contains some details about the doomed “pivot to video” that a number of news outlets executed in recent years, based on Facebook’s insistence that video was the way to get more engagement. Not only were the metrics the company used to make this argument inaccurate (which led to a $40 million settlement with advertisers) but video content actually accelerated a decline in engagement rather than reversing it. “One data scientist said in a 2020 memo that Facebook teams studied the issue and ‘never really figured out why metrics declined.’ The team members ultimately concluded that the prevalence of video and other professionally produced content, rather than organic posts from individuals, was likely part of the problem.”

Other notable stories:

A federal appeals court has rejected a defamation claim launched by Republican congressman Devin Nunes over a magazine story about his relatives in Iowa, but allowed a separate claim of libel to go ahead, Politico reports. In the second claim, Nunes says he was libeled by a tweet from former Esquire reporter Ryan Lizza that linked to the magazine story a year after it was published. According to the appeals court ruling, because the tweet came after Nunes had already launched his case arguing the story was untrue, Lizza may have engaged in the “purposeful avoidance of the truth.”

A foundation created by basketball star Michael Jordan has awarded a $1 million grant to the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, to help the organization increase diversity in the field of investigative journalism. The society said that the grant will enable it to “expand its college internship partnerships, build a summer journalism program at a historically Black North Carolina college, and launch a yearlong high school journalism project at a majority Black and Latino public high school in that state.” The society was founded in 2016 and is based at the School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Vanity Fair media writer Joe Pompeo profiles Kevin Merida, the new executive editor of the LA Times, who says he is “drawn to underdogs.” The piece describes the paper as having weathered more abuse than most: “During the dark early days of the print-media apocalypse, the Chandler dynasty’s pride and joy was brought to the brink by a revolving door of nightmare bosses,” Pompeo writes. “A former Times journalist once described them to me as ‘an unbelievable string of assholes.’” Merida says he has “a chance to reinvent the L.A. Times, to make it better. I would like to redefine what a modern newspaper is.”

Jess Brammar, former editor of HuffPost UK, has taken on a newly created role at the BBC as head of domestic and international news channels. Metro reports that Brammar was hired despite a recent controversy over some comments she made about UK prime minister Boris Johnson, in which she accused him of lying in an interview. “It was alleged that No 10 ally and BBC board member Sir Robbie Gibb tried to stop Brammar being hired for the job,” Metro writes. Gibb reportedly warned that the government’s trust in the BBC would be shattered if Brammar were to be appointed to the job.

For CJR’s new magazine on political journalism after Trump, Osita Nwanevu asks “What is political writing for?” Financial and other pressures have combined to drive political journalism to a predictable place, Nwanevu writes: “The morsels of rage and misery we offer might not have much political effect, but they do feed an online writing economy that rewards speed, quantity, and deference to algorithms designed for the profit of three or four tech companies—an economy that offers few incentives to generate writing that lingers in the mind longer than half a day or half an hour.”

SmartNews, a mobile news aggregation app created by a Japanese company, has raised $230 million in venture funding, which gives the app a theoretical market value of $2 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported. The company “forms partnerships with external outlets such as USA Today and Time magazine to publish their content [and] prides itself on aiding local news organizations by driving traffic to their articles through a tab that shows personalized headlines based on a user’s location,” the Journal wrote.

The Guardian reported that police in Northern Ireland have arrested four men as part of the investigation into the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. The men were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2006 on Wednesday morning and are now being questioned at Musgrave police station in Belfast, according to the newspaper report. McKee, 29, described by the Guardian as one of Northern Ireland’s most promising young journalists, was shot while reporting on riots in the Derry region of Ireland.

Nina Gregory, a senior editor for NPR’s Arts Desk, is joining the audio community Clubhouse as its first head of news and media publishers, according to CNN. Gregory, who has worked at NPR since 2006, said it is the first job she has applied for outside of public radio in 15 years. “As an audio journalist, [Clubhouse] aligned with what I’ve always believed is the best medium for news. You don’t need to know how to read to be able to hear radio news. You don’t need to have an expensive subscription. You don’t need cable,” Gregory told CNN. “The accessibility across not just geography, but socioeconomics and cultures has always driven me to the power of the medium.”

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