Faces Off Now

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in his garage in Bellevue, Washington, on July 5, 1994, as an online marketplace for books. But that got out of hand. He put Borders out of business and reduced Barnes and Noble to next to nothing, and he wiped out independent bookstores everywhere. There are few of those left, and then he was selling electronics and video games and then everything else. Amazon sells everything now. Amazon ate the world.

Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg with four fellow Harvard students. The name comes from the face book directories given to college and university students each fall. There’s a picture of everyone who’ll be showing up for classes. Get to know your classmates. Guys grab the book and check out the new hot babes, if there are any. Zuckerberg automated that for them, and membership was initially limited to Harvard students, but there had been a prototype:

Zuckerberg built a website called “Facemash” in 2003 while attending Harvard University. The site was comparable to “Hot or Not” and used photos compiled from the online face books of nine Houses, placing two next to each other at a time and asking users to choose the “hotter” person. Facemash attracted 450 visitors and 22,000 photo-views in its first four hours. The site was sent to several campus group listservs, but was shut down a few days later by Harvard administration. Zuckerberg faced expulsion and was charged with breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy. Ultimately, the charges were dropped.

He promised to behave himself. He didn’t behave himself. He used that same premise to create a global “Hot or Not” social network for billions of users around the world, who play “Hot or Not” all day long. But now it’s politics, or the grandkids, or cars, or anything. This goes on endlessly. Choose the “hotter” person. Trump or Biden? Obama or Ted Nugent? Or just look at all these other cool people, who aren’t you. They’re hot. You’re not. You might as well go kill yourself. Some teenage girls do just that.

Nothing changed. Who’s hot? Who’s not? Fight it out. Be mean, Be snarky. Be nasty. Sneer. Heap on the ridicule. And that’s addictive. No one can quit, and Zuckerberg will sell ads. Advertisers will pay big money for access to a fully engaged and perpetually angry captive audience They’re primed. They’ll buy anything. That seems to be the business model.

And that’s failing. Shirin Ghaffary, at Vox, explains how that just happened:

On Sunday evening, a former Facebook employee who has previously revealed damning internal documents about the company came forward on 60 Minutes to reveal her identity.

Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic integrity team, shared documents that were the basis of an explosive series of articles in the Wall Street Journal. The reports revealed that the company knew its products can cause meaningful harm – including negatively impacting the mental health of teens – but it still has not made major changes to fix such problems.

This just isn’t college guys rating hot babes and ugly losers:

“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money,” said Haugen in the 60 Minutes interview on Sunday.

She also shared new allegations – not previously covered in the WSJ’s extensive reporting – about Facebook allegedly relaxing its standards on misinformation after the 2020 presidential elections, shortly ahead of the January 6 riots at the US Capitol.

Conflict is their business model. They seem happy to provide a safe space. Plan your overthrow of the government here! But they have no agenda:

In an internal staff memo obtained and published on Friday by the New York Times, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, wrote that the responsibility for January 6 “rests squarely with the perpetrators of the violence, and those in politics and elsewhere who actively encouraged them.” Clegg also wrote that Facebook is not a “primary cause of polarization.”

Facebook simply provided a place for them to organize everything. Facebook didn’t march with them. Facebook did nothing, but that line is getting old:

Facebook has been mired in PR and political crises for the past five years. But this is a staggering moment for the company and the billions of people who use its products. Already, in response to documents revealed by Haugen, the whistleblower, the company has paused development of its Instagram for Kids product, brought two executives before Congress to testify, and launched a PR offensive dismissing the Wall Street Journal’s reporting as “cherry picking.”

Haugen has also shared internal Facebook documents with lawmakers and is expected to testify before members of Congress on Tuesday. The fact that she is coordinating with lawmakers reflects how politicians on both sides of the aisle are viewing social media companies like Facebook with more concern – and that they’re becoming more adept at scrutinizing them.

Yes, this is trouble:

“This is the first time I can remember anything this dramatic, with an anonymous whistleblower, this many documents, and a big reveal,” said Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy at Facebook who is now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Atlantic Council.

The extent to which Facebook seemingly knew about the harmful effects of its products and withheld that knowledge from the public has caused lawmakers such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to compare the company’s tactics to those of Big Tobacco.

The walls are closing in:

Facebook has already responded to the allegations with defense from a familiar playbook, similar to its response to President Joe Biden’s criticism that the platform was “killing people” because of the spread of Covid-19 misinformation on the platform. The company and its leaders are arguing that the allegations are sensationalized and untrue, that information is being taken out of context, and that Facebook isn’t the only one to blame for the world’s problems.

And just like it did during the recent Biden and Facebook Covid-19 misinformation debate, Facebook has questioned the credibility of outside research on how its platforms function.

This time, the company went so far as to discredit some of its internal researchers’ findings about Instagram’s negative effects on teenagers’ mental health. Last week, it distributed an annotated version of the original research that was first published in the Journal. In its annotated slides, Facebook said that its researchers’ slide titles “may be sensationalizing” findings that Instagram can negatively contribute to teenage girls’ body image issues. The company also said the size of the study was limited.

They’re only making things worse:

“It is a big moment,” said Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook’s former global head of elections integrity operations. She has been a vocal critic of the company since she left in November 2018. “For years, we’ve known many of these issues – via journalists and researchers – but Facebook has been able to claim that they have an ax to grind and so we shouldn’t trust what they say. This time, the documents speak for themselves,” she told Recode.

But it’s more than the documents. Zuckerberg blew it:

A key reason why this latest scandal feels more significant is that politicians on both sides of the aisle feel deceived by Facebook, because they have previously asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg about Instagram’s mental health effects on children and teenagers, and the company wasn’t forthcoming.

In March, Zuckerberg told Congress that he didn’t believe the research was conclusive, and that “overall, the research that we have seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits.” But he did not disclose the negative findings in the research cited in the Wall Street Journal reporting, including that 13 percent of British teenage users and 6 percent of American teenage users studied who had suicidal thoughts traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.

The company also didn’t share the research in response to two separate inquiries by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) when they asked for Facebook’s internal research on the matter after the March congressional hearing.

He hid. He’s paying the price. It’s all falling apart:

More of Facebook’s current and former employees – instead of being quieted by the company’s reported tightening of communication among its staff – are starting to openly discuss the company’s issues on Twitter, and within internal settings like company message boards, according to reporting from the New York Times.

Some researchers working at the company feel “embarrassed” that Facebook dismissed the quality of its own staff’s work, according to the Times. Facebook, like other major tech companies, prides itself on hiring world-class researchers and engineering talent. If the company further taints its own image in the engineering and academic communities, that could limit the caliber of employees it’s able to recruit.

“I think Facebook is miscalculating what a watershed moment this is, not just because the public now has eyes on these documents but because employees are starting to get angry,” Eisenstat told Recode.

And that leads to dark places:

In the coming days, the attention around Haugen will likely shift to include her personal story: her background, what she worked on at Facebook, whether she has any incentive to share this information other than the public good, and how she might face legal challenges or even retaliation for her actions (Facebook executives have testified under oath that they will not retaliate against her for addressing Congress).

But Haugen coming forward is about much more than one individual. In revealing thousands of documents involving the work of many people at the company – which was subsequently largely ignored by top executives – this whistleblower has reignited longstanding debates inside and outside the company about Facebook’s flaws.

“Haugen has provided an unvarnished and unprecedented look at the extent to which Facebook executives have knowingly disregarded the life-and-death consequences of their own products and decisions,” Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the policy nonprofit Accountable Tech, told Recode. “And she’s paved the way for others to speak out.”

Or this is political. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump offers this:

Facebook accomplished something truly remarkable. Across its platforms – most notably Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – it recorded nearly 3 billion users last month, according to its own metrics, about 2 out of every 5 living humans. The company figured out a combination of tools and tactics that worked for getting people to engage. Because Facebook moved early to leverage the benefits of social interconnections and then aggressively defended and expanded its turf, numbers like its September user total are actually conceivable.

It was aided by novelty. There were no rules or even ethics bounding social media, so Facebook could experiment and explore ways to goose those numbers. While it was obvious for years that this created an environment in which misinformation and abuse could take root, it’s only been fairly recently that the company’s business practices have come under scrutiny from legislators and officials on both ends of the political spectrum. Former president Donald Trump, for example, has sued Facebook after repeatedly criticizing the company while in office.

Hot or Not Hot? That founding question is still a good question:

One might think that the current scrutiny the company faces would be something elevated by both Democrats and Republicans. The release of internal documents showing ways in which Facebook fostered hostile environments and a “60 Minutes” interview with the whistleblower who provided them to the Wall Street Journal pose perhaps the most significant threat to its power that the company has experienced to date.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, said on the CBS News program, “and Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” In a recent interview with The Washington Post, she explained her decision to come forward: “Facebook in its current form is dangerous.”

And yet, despite this, the response from the political right has been largely muted.

Of course it was muted, Violence is useful:

Facebook was broadly criticized after the 2016 election for having allowed misinformation to spread on its platform, specifically from Russians aiming to influence American politics. That overlapped with new attention being paid to abusive interactions on social media. In response, it and other platforms began more actively policing what was shared and trying to figure out how to limit the spread of false information.

But that often meant tamping down on prominent voices on the right, like Trump and his son. Facebook and Instagram became targets of conservatives because those conservatives were affected by the changes and because they were eager to have an institutional opponent to push back against. Facebook found itself pulled in two directions, between trying to limit the extent to which toxicity spread on the platform and facing complaints from those affected by those limits.

Well, nothing is evil:

When Haugen argues that Facebook hasn’t done enough to tamp down on misinformation and hate, when she provides internal documents that reveal the company’s possession of “evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech and misinformation on Facebook and the family of apps are affecting societies around the world,” that is the opposite of what Trump and his allies are concerned about. They aren’t mad at Facebook for how it is lax in its policing of content. They’re mad about the policing of content.

In some cases, this conflict is simply ignored. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), whose efforts to cast technology companies as a generous force even led to his citing their actions when he endorsed the effort to block electoral-vote counting on Jan. 6, has repeatedly demanded that Facebook and other companies not censor users. He introduced legislation in 2019 amplifying the idea that there was no recourse but to have the federal government intervene to defend what he and others cast as politically motivated efforts to silence the right.

That won’t end well:

His argument is that Facebook (and other companies) are unfairly targeting the right, a claim for which the main evidence is occasions when prominent conservatives have been muted or had content removed from the platforms or, more recently, the response to the New York Post’s elevation of accusations about Joe Biden’s son Hunter last year. On net, though, Facebook has largely been a boon to the political right, and research has shown how it rewards extreme positions and content like that offered by Trump and many of his allies. Not to mention instances in which Trump and others were explicitly allowed to sidestep the rules.

Yes, this is nonsense:

What the leaked documents make clear is that there’s no real debate – including within the company itself – that Facebook is enormously effective at spreading false and toxic messages. The question, instead, is whether it can weather efforts to tamp down on dangerous content that aids one political group. Or, really, whether it wants to.

That’s okay. It was time to move on, but there was drama, There was this:

Facebook apps slowly came back online Monday following a prolonged, global outage, one of the largest disruptions to the social media sites’ billions of users in years.

Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger were unreachable for hours for many users, who instead saw a spinning wheel on their apps that never loaded. The outages caused widespread chaos for those who use it for communication — particularly for WhatsApp users globally — as well as companies and people who rely on the sites to conduct business.

“Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger are coming back online now,” chief executive Mark Zuckerberg posted late Monday. “Sorry for the disruption today – I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about.”

Okay. This was a big deal:

‘The problems weren’t limited to external users. Facebook’s internal communication platform, Workplace, went down altogether for most of the work day, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. And as employees turned to third-party tools such as Slack, many found themselves locked out of even those, because Facebook’s mechanism for signing on to them was not working, said another person familiar with the matter who spoke under the same conditions.

The WhatsApp outage was particularly hard for a huge swath of the world that relies on it heavily for messaging, especially in the around two dozen nations where the app is the messaging market leader.

According to the Global Web Index’s 2020 Social Media User Trends Report, in seven countries – including Kenya, Malaysia and Colombia – more than 90 percent of those ages 16 to 64 are monthly WhatsApp users.

In the Middle East, where the public and governments rely heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp, the outage meant a near-complete communications blackout.

Phone calls and text messages are expensive in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, causing residents to turn to WhatsApp in particular. The app also offers encrypted voice calls, an important feature in a region rife with government surveillance.

In some countries, including Lebanon, political and public announcements are made almost exclusively via Facebook.

This will not end well:

Several international newspapers, from South Asia to South America, were running news of the shutdown as the top story. El Tiempo, a news outlet in Colombia, quickly published a list of alternatives to WhatsApp, including Telegram. In the United Kingdom, digital news outlet the Independent was running a live update file on the shutdown.

India has about 400 million WhatsApp users, and the service plays a heavy role during elections.

  That does happen. Many things do. Hot on Not Hot? Yes, like Amazon, Facebook ate the world too.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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