In recent years, Facebook has faced whistleblowers and PR firestorms as well as Congressional inquiries. Now, it is facing a combination of all three in what could prove to be the most severe and extensive crisis in the company’s 17-year-old history.
On Friday, a consortium of 17 US news organizations began publishing a series of stories — collectively called “The Facebook Papers” — based on a trove of hundreds of internal company documents which were included in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. SME was part of the consortium that reviewed the redacted versions sent to Congress.
SME’s coverage includes stories on how Facebook’s coordinated groups inflict violence and discord, including on January 6. There are also Facebook’s challenges in moderating certain non-English-speaking nations’ content and how human traffickers have exploited its platforms. The Wall Street Journal previously published stories based upon tens of thousand pages of internal Facebook documents that Haugen had leaked. Many of the same documents are used in the work of this consortium.
Facebook has had to deal with scandals before about its data privacy, content moderation, competitors and other issues. The vast archive of documents and the many stories that are still to be told from it touch on concerns and issues across almost every aspect of the business, including its approach to fighting hate speech and misinformation, managing global growth, protecting younger users, and its ability to accurately measure its huge audience.
All of this raises the uncomfortable question: Is Facebook really capable of managing real-world harms from its enormous platforms, or is it too big to fail?
These documents highlight various issues Facebook was aware of, and how it continues to struggle with them. Take the example of a report published by the Journal on September 16 that highlighted internal Facebook research about a violent Mexican drug cartel, known as Cartél Jalisco Nueva Generación. The platform was being used by the cartel to upload violent content and recruit new members. Facebook said at the time that it was investing heavily in artificial intelligence to improve its enforcement against such organizations.
SME found disturbing content on Instagram that was linked to the group, including images of guns and photos and videos in which people seem to have been shot and beheaded, despite last month’s Journal report. SME asked Facebook about the videos. A spokesperson confirmed that several videos SME flagged were removed due to violations of the company’s policies. At least one post had a warning.
Facebook, for its part has repeatedly tried discredit Haugen. It claimed her testimony, and reports on the documents, mischaracterize its efforts and actions.
“At the core of these stories lies a premise that is false,” a Facebook spokesperson stated in a statement to SME. “Yes, it’s a business. We make profit. But the idea that we do this at people’s expense or wellbeing is wrong. This is where our commercial interests lie.”
In a tweet threadJohn Pinette, Vice President of Communications at the company, described the Facebook Papers as a “curated selection” of millions of documents at Facebook that “can’t be used to draw fair conclusions.” But even that response is telling — if Facebook has more documents that would tell a fuller story, why not release them?
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