Wednesday, July 6th, 2022

Facebook hoaxes helped boost insurrection, white nationalism, and COVID. Employees are fed up

Facebook hoaxes helped boost insurrection, white nationalism, and COVID. Employees are fed up

Information about Facebook hoaxes helped boost insurrection, white nationalism, and COVID. Employees are fed up

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As one employee post to Facebook’s internal message boards put it: “How are we expected to ignore when leadership overrides research-based policy decisions to better serve people like the groups inciting violence today?”

At issue is that Facebook executives know that the algorithms they use to approximate human interactions—the company asserts itself to be a facilitator of family bonding and catching-up-with-friends, after all, when the service may more closely approximate commandeering a public park, giving everyone inside it megaphones, and telling them that the person who can attract the most attention with their shouts will be given a very special, thoroughly imaginary prize—reward provocation, paranoia, and outright hoaxes. Facebook executives also know that the company’s worldwide reach means it has become a go-to outlet for any propagandist seeking to quickly disseminate government-bending, society-bending hoaxes and/or bigotries.

This is not in question. Internal company research and external scientific analysis alike have highlighted the problem, over and over; the only question is what obligation, if any, the company has to adjust its policies to not be a prime force for disinformation and violence. NBC’s report specifically notes internal “turmoil” in the wake of the Capitol violence due to Facebook largely ignoring the widespread promotion of “Stop the Steal” election hoaxes from through November and December, even as it became more and more obvious that the hoaxes were a concerted (Trump-backed, Republican Party-backed) effort to lie to the public outright, so as to justify a nullification of the election by extra-constitutional means.

The insurrection, however, was hardly the first time it became apparent that Facebook’s obsession with growth via viral sharing was not-coincidentally turning the company into a prime disseminator of hate speech, extremism, dangerous hoaxes, and organized propaganda campaigns. Each day’s list of top Facebook posts near-uniformly features a small gaggle of arch-conservative frothers known more for provocation than accuracy, and the company has had to continually deny accusations that the promotion of the far right is not a coincidental artifact of its algorithms, but the intentional agenda of top (Republican) company executives like public policy head Joel Kaplan.

Those accusations are also being made by employees inside the company, and The Wall Street Journal focuses specifically on the example of Breitbart being chosen for the Facebook “News Tab,” a decision that was eyebrow-raising from the moment it was made but which company executives have relentlessly defended with oft-nonsensical statements and protestations of neutrality. The Journal reports more broadly that the “documents also reveal that Facebook’s management team has been so intently focused on avoiding charges of bias that it regularly places political considerations at the center of its decision making.”

Well, that’s not exactly a surprise. There don’t seem to be many decisions Facebook executives face that are not focused in large part on “political considerations.” That might be the natural outcome of choosing explicitly partisan (Republican) figures as top executives.

Since the Journal is a Rupert Murdoch-owned rag, it attempts to weave through its entire story without giving credence or context to employee anger over Breitbart’s inclusion as one of Facebook’s most trusted alleged “news” partners. It is not that the site is “hyperpartisan,” as the Journal is willing to suggest only via an employee quote. The site has long acted as a prime enabler in the rise of white nationalism, continually boosting so-called “alt-right” figures while stoking the same anti-immigrant paranoias, anti-Black conspiracy theories, and other neo-Nazi tactics and tropes.

This isn’t a game, Journal editors. A credible case can be made that Steve Bannon’s reconstruction of a sliding Breitbart “news” site into a promotional tool of white nationalism helped propel that movement, and its violence, into its new powerful position in the Republican Party and the Trump White House. The group’s dogged promotion of extremist voices and white nationalist positions personally pushed by Trump “senior adviser” Stephen Miller alone shows the breadth of the site’s willingness to promote extremism as political weapon.

The absurdity of both choosing the site as a preferred Facebook “news” provider and defending it even after numerous news outlets have reported, at length, the site’s slide into the promotion of white nationalism is only underscored by another internal company document referenced in the Journal’s report. An internal study by Facebook’s own research ranked Breitbart as the “least trusted news source” of any of the “several dozen” it ranked, cleanly countering any supposed reason Facebook executives had for seizing on it as supposed partner.

Instead, the Journal report adds credence to the suspicion that conservative Facebook executives were mainstreaming the Breitbart site into the Facebook “news” domain for the same reason Breitbart itself was mainstreaming white nationalist voices and talking points: they wanted to. The extremism brought traffic, and money, and political clout.

Whether Facebook executives sought to snuggle with the extremist site because it offered a closer connection to ersatz Trump adviser Steve Bannon or simply felt kinship with the site continually promoting the supposed existential dangers of immigrants or the supposed conspiracies behind Black Americans protesting against police violence are still left to our imaginations, but Facebook’s employees seem to have the same clarity that much of the rest of the nation has found, on the subject: If you align yourself with white nationalist rhetoric and white nationalist hoaxes, you have aligned yourself with white nationalism.

The Charlottesville protests and murder, by a resurgent white nationalist base feeling empowered by the growing dominance of their themes online, and among Trump’s advisers, and in Trump’s White House? Facebook executives own that. The violence on Jan. 6, long after it had become clear that there was an organized attempt to nullify a United States election via the furious promotion of entirely fake supposed election “fraud?” Facebook executives bear personal responsibility. It is not that, as they quickly attempted to claim, they simply failed to notice the danger signs as election conspiracies swirled on their platform. Facebook executives have made years of conscious effort to endorse radical, racist, anti-democratic hoaxes as within the bounds of site discourse.

Sometimes they have sought that content out, as with the decision to ally with Breitbart in order to bring more “diverse” viewpoints. Sometimes they have made algorithmic decisions knowing that those decisions would protect, or grow, extremist camps within their network. Sometimes they have overridden the algorithms and policies to grant the most consistent click-producing provocateurs special exemptions—such as the company’s pointed indifference to a spam network that boosts conservative gadfly Ben Shapiro to the top of nearly every day’s top posts.

It doesn’t matter what reasoning Facebook executives use to explain the site’s current status as the dominant tool for democracy-damaging, violence-producing hoaxes. It is that way because Facebook executives made a set of decisions that produced that result, and are now asserting that they will not be changing the decisions that continue to produce that result. The site was the top promoter of the hoax that led to a violent insurrection because site executives had made the decision that they would abide such hoaxes.

The CNN Business take on Facebook’s internal war is, of course, all about whether it will end up costing the company money. There are claims that the company has been misleading investors by underselling the scope of what the company itself knows to be substantial social harms caused by its product, whether it be fueling mental health crises among American teen girls or its use as tool for destabilizing nations. There are worries that being a definable danger to global democracy will harm employee recruitment efforts. Perhaps they will; perhaps, on the other hand, Facebook will begin filling itself with the sort of “hyperpartisan” anti-democratic voices that increasingly gravitate to its products.

In the end, this will absolutely cost Facebook money and everybody knows it’s going to cost Facebook money, which is precisely why the company has spent years claiming that Actually it could not police any of this and we should all be grateful for whatever small gestures the company sporadically wills itself to muster. What Facebook is attempting to avoid are moderation efforts robust enough to make a significant impact on hoax content, efforts which would both entail greatly expanding human moderation teams and which would, as byproduct, remove what is currently a reliable source of clicks and revenue.

Facebook makes money promoting violent white nationalism. Facebook makes money promoting tawdry but entirely fake election hoaxes. Facebook makes money every time a cheap, vacuous huckster insists that they have discovered the Cure to the Pandemic, and it’s licking a tube of horse dewormer or dunking your head in a vat of pool chemicals. Anything that brings in eyeballs puts cash into Facebook pockets, and Facebook has been publicly negotiating, continually attempting to find the exact lines at which they can act as agent of pandemic spread or of a new and violent fascist right, keeping the revenue, while keeping public fury at just-manageable levels.

They are not good at it, which is why they overshot themselves into providing material support for an attempt to overthrow our democracy. They are not good at it, which is why even now they continue to bluster that it’s simply not fair to blame them for the products of decisions they have made willingly, for years, and which they continue to stand behind now.

This will cost Facebook money. The current negotiations are over how much violence, death, and chaos the company can cause per dollar gained before Congress and the public both decide the company cannot be tolerated in current form.

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