5 things you should know about Facebook
Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, has released a trove of internal Facebook documents to a variety of media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. This process has unleashed a flood of reporting that provides important insight about Facebook. On Monday alone, there were more than 50 stories published by media outlets based on the documents.
Popular Information has reviewed them all and identified the key takeaways. To regular readers of this newsletter, some of this information will be familiar. It serves as valuable confirmation of stories we've published over the last three years. Other information contained in the Facebook documents is new.
The documents paint a disturbing picture of a company that is a key source of information for hundreds of millions of people in the United States and billions of people around the world.
1. Facebook gives right-wing politicians and publications special treatment
Politico reports that Facebook's "lobbying and government relations shop, overseen by former Republican operative Joel Kaplan," which is based in DC, "regularly weighs in on speech-related issues." Kaplan and his team use their influence to protect "prominent right-wing figures." The documents reveal that "dynamic is so prevalent that employees argued internally that Facebook regularly ignored its own written policies to keep political figures happy, even overriding concerns about public safety."
Popular Information first reported on how the DC office used its power to benefit Republicans on Facebook in October 2019:
"Decisions are made to benefit Republicans because they are paranoid about their reputation among conservative Republicans, particularly Trump," a former Facebook employee told Popular Information in 2019.
The Facebook documents contain several examples of other employees raising concerns about this dynamic. "When you have the head of content policy reporting to a lobbyist who has to make the president happy, that’s an unhealthy dynamic," one former employee told Politico, "It was often that making the president happy was the top priority."
Kaplan and his team took steps to protect pro-Trump accounts "such as provocateur Charlie Kirk, the conservative publication Breitbart and activists Diamond and Silk from consequences for violating Facebook’s policies against misinformation." In some cases "CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gotten personally involved." Popular Information has repeatedly documented how Facebook has bent its rules to benefit the right:
Haugen says that Facebook "rolled back a change to the platform that would have reduced misinformation because it disproportionately affected right-wing users."
2. Zuckerberg's Congressional testimony appears inconsistent with Facebook's research
The Washington Post reports that the Facebook documents "show that Zuckerberg’s public statements are often at odds with internal company findings." Last year, for example, Zuckerberg told Congress "that the company removes 94 percent of the hate speech it finds." But inside Facebook, "researchers estimated that the company was removing less than 5 percent of all hate speech."
In March 2021, Zuckerberg testified that "some people say that the problem is the social networks are polarizing us, but that’s not at all clear from the evidence or research." Inside Facebook, an employee wrote in August 2020 that "[w]e’ve known for over a year now that our recommendation systems can very quickly lead users down the path to conspiracy theories and groups."
These inconsistencies could be a problem for Zuckerberg, who was testifying under oath.
3. Facebook is used for human trafficking
Internal Facebook documents, detailed by CNN, reveal the company was aware its platform was used to facilitate "domestic servitude," which is defined as "a form of trafficking of people for the purpose of working inside private homes through the use of force, fraud, coercion or deception."
The documents describe women trafficked on Facebook as subject "to physical and sexual abuse, being deprived of food and pay, and having their travel documents confiscated so they can't escape." The issue was prevalent enough on Facebook to merit its own acronym, "HEx," or “human exploitation."
In 2019, Apple became so concerned with the issue that it "threatened to pull Facebook and Instagram's access to the App Store." Facebook was able to mollify Apple's concerns but an internal report from this year stated "gaps still exist in our detection of on-platform entities engaged in domestic servitude."
CNN, using "search terms listed in Facebook's internal research on the subject," located "active Instagram accounts purporting to offer domestic workers for sale" last week. Facebook "removed the accounts and posts after CNN asked about them."
4. Zuckerberg nixed plans to provide accurate voting information in Spanish
The Washington Post detailed how Zuckerberg nixed plans to provide Spanish-language voting information in WhatsApp because it might be seen as helping Democrats:
Ahead of the 2020 U.S. election, Facebook built a “voting information center” that promoted factual information about how to register to vote or sign up to be a poll worker. Teams at WhatsApp wanted to create a version of it in Spanish, pushing the information proactively through a chat bot or embedded link to millions of marginalized voters who communicate regularly through WhatsApp. But Zuckerberg raised objections to the idea, saying it was not “politically neutral,” or could make the company appear partisan, according to a person familiar with the project who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, as well as documents reviewed by The Post.
Last September, Popular Information reported that Facebook had pledged to remove misinformation about voting from any source — even political candidates. But Facebook did not follow through with misinformation about voting posted by Trump.
Facebook never provided an explanation about why it didn't remove Trump's posts.
5. For Zuckerberg, profit trumps free speech
Zuckerberg frequently deflects criticism of controversial decisions, claiming they are a reflection of his deep commitment to free speech. But the Facebook documents reveal that Zuckerberg is willing to set his commitment to free speech aside to protect the company's bottom line.
Vietnam is a lucrative market for Facebook, generating $1 billion in revenue in 2018. Last year, Vietnam's Communist government demanded Facebook censor "anti-government dissidents" or "risk getting knocked offline." Zuckerberg chose to protect the revenue:
So Zuckerberg personally decided that Facebook would comply with Hanoi’s demands, according to three people familiar with the decision, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal company discussions. Ahead of Vietnam’s party congress in January, Facebook significantly increased censorship of “anti-state” posts, giving the government near-total control over the platform, according to local activists and free speech advocates.
The move stands in stark contrast to Zuckerberg's public statements. "Whether you like Facebook or not, we need to recognize what is at stake and come together to stand for free expression at this critical moment," Zuckerberg said in his speech at Georgetown in October 2019.