3 Weird Details From Facebook's Latest Scandals
Keeping in the tradition of Facebook's long controversial history, including the Cambridge Analytica data fiasco, pervasive allegations the site played a role in spreading misinformation during the 2016 election and the Covid-19 pandemic, and of course, that one time co-founder Mark Zuckerberg launched a site designed to rank the hotness of Harvard University's female students, the tech company and its execs have found themselves under fire once again, becoming fully embroiled in Hot Scandal September.
Over the past week and change, Facebook has had some of its seemingly massive internal issues displayed to the world, due to a scathing new report from the New York Times and primarily, a new series from The Wall Street Journal. Entitled “The Facebook Files,” the business publication's reports are particularly damning. Citing “internal Facebook documents, including research reports, online employee discussions and drafts of presentations to senior management,” the series alleges that although the tech giant has thoroughly documented the harm it can cause, they refuse to act.
“Time and again, the documents show, Facebook’s researchers have identified the platform’s ill effects,” reads the introduction to “The Facebook Files." “Time and again, despite congressional hearings, its own pledges and numerous media exposés, the company didn’t fix them. The documents offer perhaps the clearest picture thus far of how broadly Facebook’s problems are known inside the company, up to the chief executive himself.”
From how the site allegedly does not moderate its users equally to how Zuckerberg has responded to these claims, here are three things you need to know about Facebook's new scandals.
1.The Wall Street Journal's claims
Throughout the five-part series, The Wall Street Journal made several bold claims regarding the tech giant.
Despite Zuckerberg's insistence that all Facebook users are treated equally under the site's moderation policy, the business publication alleges that such isn't true, citing internal documents discussing a system called "XCheck" which has partially or entirely exempted nearly six million politicians, celebrities, and other popular, high-profile Facebook users from its rules.
Originally designed as “as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists,” according to the article, the program seemingly switched course and now allegedly “shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process," the piece explained, referencing internal documents it had obtained. Although the report says that “whitelisted” users have gotten away with spreading misinformation about vaccines and conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, other alleged exemptions have been more sinister. For more than a day, Facebook was purportedly unable to remove a Brazillian soccer player's post which allegedly included nude photos of a woman who accused him of rape due to XCheck. More than 56 million Facebook and Instagram users allegedly saw the post, the outlet reported, citing an internal review.
Beyond the XCheck allegations, The Wall Street Journal also claimed that Facebook, which owns Instagram, knew their app had a detrimental impact on teenagers' mental health, supposedly keeping this information to themselves for years.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” researchers for Instagram reportedly wrote in a slide during a March 2020 presentation, adding that “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” The year before, researchers came to a similar conclusion. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” read a slide in a presentation from 2019.
Despite reportedly having this vital information, execs remained publicly tight-lipped on the topic – even when speaking before government officials. “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” Zuckerberg explained during a congressional hearing in March.
Following the article, the company issued a statement disputing these claims. “Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too,” Instagram's Head of Public Policy, Karina Newton, wrote in response to the story. “That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better.”
The Wall Street Journal's subsequent articles were equally, if not more concerning – one detailed how a 2018 algorithm change allegedly “rewarded outrage” and may have prompted political publishers to sensationalize their content. Another accused the site of not remedying systems allegedly used by traffickers and cartels. The series's final installment claimed anti-vaxxers undermined Zuckerberg's desire to help spread correct information regarding the Covid-19 vaccine. Although the site refuted or clarified most of the publication's claims, it's still been a rough few weeks for the social media giant.
2. What the New York Times had to say about Facebook's practices.
The Wall Street Journal hasn't been only publication sharing concerning reports about Facebook – last week, the New York Times ran an alarming reporting on a new image-boosting initiative code-named “Project Amplify," a move allegedly designed to pump users' news feeds full of flattering content and positive news stories about the social media platform.
"They’re realizing that no one else is going to come to their defense, so they need to do it and say it themselves,” Facebook public policy director, Katie Harbath, told the publication of Project Amplify's genesis.
While the proposal reportedly “shocked” several execs during a January meeting in which the measure was allegedly first pitched, anonymous sources told the newspaper, Zuckerberg approved the move last month, with Facebook already testing the initiative in three cities. Is unclear how many users saw these posts and whether these experiments will continue.
“Once the tests began, Facebook used a system known as Quick Promotes to place stories about people and organizations that used the social network into users’ News Feeds, they said,” the article explained. “People essentially see posts with a Facebook logo that link to stories and websites published by the company and from third-party local news sites. One story pushed “Facebook’s Latest Innovations for 2021” and discussed how it was achieving ‘100 percent renewable energy for our global operations.’”
Despite this alarming report, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osbourne told the publication Project Amplify is “similar to corporate responsibility initiatives people see in other technology and consumer products.” “This is a test for an informational unit clearly marked as coming from Facebook,” he continued.
3. To Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, Denial is more than a river in Egypt.
Considering its alleged new dedication to hyping itself up on our timelines almost as much as it does those really gross cooking videos, Facebook, naturally, denied all of these claims, tapping Nick Clegg, the company's Vice President of Global Affairs to pen a scathing statement slamming the series.
“A lot has been said about Facebook this week,” wrote Clegg, who also served as the UK's former deputy prime minister, in a post on the company's site entitled "What the Wall Street Journal Got Wrong." "A series of articles published by the Wall Street Journal has focused on some of the most difficult issues we grapple with as a company — from content moderation and vaccine misinformation, to algorithmic distribution and the well-being of teens. These are serious and complex issues, and it is absolutely legitimate for us to be held to account for how we deal with them. But these stories have contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”
Accusing the paper of “cherry-picking selective quotes" from the leaked documents they obtained and presenting “complex and nuanced issues as if there is only ever one right answer,” Clegg denied the series' allegations that the company “systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company.” Instead, he says, these reports were designed to “hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask the difficult questions about how people interact at scale with social media.”
“Facebook understands the significant responsibility that comes with operating a global platform. We take it seriously, and we don’t shy away from scrutiny and criticism,” Clegg said. “But we fundamentally reject this mischaracterization of our work and impugning of the company’s motives. I wish there were easy answers to these issues, and that choices we might make wouldn’t come with difficult trade-offs. That is not the world we live in. We will continue to invest in research into these serious and complex issues. We will continue to ask ourselves the hard questions. And we will continue to improve our products and services as a result,” he concluded.
In the face of such concerning allegations, Zuckerberg himself also boldly stepped forward to set the record straight, candidly and transparently addressing one of the biggest issues facing his company – he was not riding an electric surfboard in his Fourth of July video.
"Look, it's one thing for the media to say false things about my work, but it's crossing the line to say I'm riding an electric surfboard when that video clearly shows a hydrofoil that I'm pumping with my own legs,” Zuckerberg wrote alongside a screenshot of the New York Times's article in a message posted to his audience of more than 116 million followers.
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