In recent years, Facebook has faced whistleblowers, PR firestorms, and congressional inquiries. It now faces a combination from all three in what could be the worst crisis in Facebook’s 17-year 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 also part of the consortium. They reviewed the redacted versions that Congress received.
SME’s coverage covers stories about how Facebook groups have created discord and violence, including January 6. It also covers Facebook’s difficulties in moderating content from non-English-speaking countries and how human traffickers exploit its platforms. The Wall Street Journal previously published stories based upon tens of thousand pages of internal Facebook documents that Haugen leaked. Many of the same documents are used in the work of this consortium.
Facebook has been in trouble before for its handling of data privacy, content moderation, and rivals. However, the vast collection of documents and the many stories still to come from it highlight concerns and problems in almost every aspect its business: its approach towards combating hate speech and misinformation; managing international growth; protecting younger users on its platform; and its ability accurately to measure its enormous 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 provide examples of various issues Facebook is aware of and still struggles with. 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 cartel was reported to have been using the platform to post violence and recruit new members, using the acronym “CJNG”, even though it had been identified internally as one of the “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” that should be removed. Facebook said at the time that it was investing heavily in artificial intelligence to improve its enforcement against such organizations.
SME discovered disturbing content on Instagram linked to the group last week, including photos of guns and photo and video posts where people appear to be shot or beheaded, despite the Journal’s report last months. 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 was also warned.
Facebook, on the other hand, has repeatedly attempted to discredit Haugen and claimed that her testimony and reports about the documents mischaracterize its actions.
“At heart of these stories are a false premise,” a Facebook spokesperson stated to SME. “Yes, we are a business, and we make profits, but the idea we do this at the expense or well-being of people is not in line with our commercial interests.”
In a tweet threadJohn Pinette (Vice President of Communications), described the Facebook Papers last week as a “curated collection out of millions” of documents at Facebook which “can not be used to draw any fair conclusions about us.” 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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