Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has denied his social media platform paved the way for the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, as Silicon Valley executives faced a barrage of criticism over their content moderation failures during a bruising hearing in Congress.
Facebook has gone into damage-control mode ahead of a 60 Minutes interview in which a former employee is due to accuse the company of enabling the Jan. 6 riot. A Facebook vice president sent a 1,500-word memo to employees Friday to pre-empt the allegations that are expected to come out on Sunday, The New York Times reports.
Also appearing before a House panel on Thursday via video link alongside Twitter head Jack Dorsey and Google’s chief Sundar Pichai, Zuckerberg rejected suggestions from politicians that Facebook bore responsibility for the riots by allowing misinformation, hate speech and online extremism to flourish on its platform.
“The responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and . . . also the people who spread that content, including the [former] president [Donald Trump], but others as well,” Zuckerberg said.
He also said claims that Facebook’s advertising-driven business model amplified provocative and polarising speech were “not accurate”, adding: “I believe that the division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart.”
However, Zuckerberg later acknowledged that the company needed to do “further work” to make its moderation “more effective”.
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Zuckerberg said he would back Section 230 reforms, suggesting the government set up a third-party body to assess whether platforms were doing enough to remove unlawful content. He later suggested that smaller platforms could be exempt from that oversight.
OUR POSITION ON POLARIZATION AND ELECTIONS
You will have seen the series of articles about us published in the Wall Street Journal in recent
days, and the public interest it has provoked. This Sunday night, the ex-employee who leaked
internal company material to the Journal will appear in a segment on 60 Minutes on CBS. We
understand the piece is likely to assert that we contribute to polarization in the United States,
and suggest that the extraordinary steps we took for the 2020 elections were relaxed too soon
and contributed to the horrific events of January 6th in the Capitol.
I know some of you – especially those of you in the US – are going to get questions from friends
and family about these things so I wanted to take a moment as we head into the weekend to
provide what I hope is some useful context on our work in these crucial areas.
Facebook and Polarization
People are understandably anxious about the divisions in society and looking for answers and
ways to fix the problems. Social media has had a big impact on society in recent years, and
Facebook is often a place where much of this debate plays out. So it’s natural for people to ask
whether it is part of the problem. But the idea that Facebook is the chief cause of polarization
isn’t supported by the facts – as Chris and Pratiti set out in their note on the issue earlier this
The rise of polarization has been the subject of swathes of serious academic research in recent
years. In truth, there isn’t a great deal of consensus. But what evidence there is simply does not
support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of
The increase in political polarization in the US pre-dates social media by several decades. If it
were true that Facebook is the chief cause of polarization, we would expect to see it going up
wherever Facebook is popular. It isn’t. In fact, polarization has gone down in a number of
countries with high social media use at the same time that it has risen in the US.
Specifically, we expect the reporting to suggest that a change to Facebook’s News Feed ranking
algorithm was responsible for elevating polarizing content on the platform. In January 2018, we
made ranking changes to promote Meaningful Social Interactions (MSI) – so that you would see
more content from friends, family and groups you are part of in your News Feed. This change
was heavily driven by internal and external research that showed that meaningful engagement
with friends and family on our platform was better for people’s wellbeing, and we further refined
and improved it over time as we do with all ranking metrics. Of course, everyone has a rogue
uncle or an old school classmate who holds strong or extreme views we disagree with – that’s
life – and the change meant you are more likely to come across their posts too. Even so, we’ve
developed industry-leading tools to remove hateful content and reduce the distribution of
problematic content. As a result, the prevalence of hate speech on our platform is now down to
But the simple fact remains that changes to algorithmic ranking systems on one social media
platform cannot explain wider societal polarization. Indeed, polarizing content and
misinformation are also present on platforms that have no algorithmic ranking whatsoever,
including private messaging apps like iMessage and WhatsApp.
Elections and Democracy
There’s perhaps no other topic that we’ve been more vocal about as a company than on our
work to dramatically change the way we approach elections. Starting in 2017, we began building
new defenses, bringing in new expertise, and strengthening our policies to prevent interference.
Today, we have more than 40,000 people across the company working on safety and security.
Since 2017, we have disrupted and removed more than 150 covert influence operations,
including ahead of major democratic elections. In 2020 alone, we removed more than 5 billion
fake accounts — identifying almost all of them before anyone flagged them to us. And, from
March to Election Day, we removed more than 265,000 pieces of Facebook and Instagram
content in the US for violating our voter interference policies.
Given the extraordinary circumstances of holding a contentious election in a pandemic, we
implemented so called “break glass” measures – and spoke publicly about them – before and
after Election Day to respond to specific and unusual signals we were seeing on our platform
and to keep potentially violating content from spreading before our content reviewers could
assess it against our policies.
These measures were not without trade-offs – they’re blunt instruments designed to deal with
specific crisis scenarios. It’s like shutting down an entire town’s roads and highways in response
to a temporary threat that may be lurking somewhere in a particular neighborhood. In
implementing them, we know we impacted significant amounts of content that did not violate our
rules to prioritize people’s safety during a period of extreme uncertainty. For example, we limited
the distribution of live videos that our systems predicted may relate to the election. That was an
extreme step that helped prevent potentially violating content from going viral, but it also
impacted a lot of entirely normal and reasonable content, including some that had nothing to do
with the election. We wouldn’t take this kind of crude, catch-all measure in normal
circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances.
We only rolled back these emergency measures – based on careful data-driven analysis – when
we saw a return to more normal conditions. We left some of them on for a longer period of time
through February this year and others, like not recommending civic, political or new Groups, we
have decided to retain permanently.
Fighting Hate Groups and other Dangerous Organizations
I want to be absolutely clear: we work to limit, not expand hate speech, and we have clear
policies prohibiting content that incites violence. We do not profit from polarization, in fact, just
the opposite. We do not allow dangerous organizations, including militarized social movements
or violence-inducing conspiracy networks, to organize on our platforms. And we remove content
that praises or supports hate groups, terrorist organizations and criminal groups.
We’ve been more aggressive than any other internet company in combating harmful content,
including content that sought to delegitimize the election. But our work to crack down on these
hate groups was years in the making. We took down tens of thousands of QAnon pages, groups
and accounts from our apps, removed the original #StopTheSteal Group, and removed
references to Stop the Steal in the run up to the inauguration. In 2020 alone, we removed more
than 30 million pieces of content violating our policies regarding terrorism and more than 19
million pieces of content violating our policies around organized hate in 2020. We designated
the Proud Boys as a hate organization in 2018 and we continue to remove praise, support, and
representation of them. Between August last year and January 12 this year, we identified nearly
900 militia organizations under our Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy and
removed thousands of Pages, groups, events, Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts
associated with these groups.
This work will never be complete. There will always be new threats and new problems to
address, in the US and around the world. That’s why we remain vigilant and alert – and will
always have to.
That is also why the suggestion that is sometimes made that the violent insurrection on January
6 would not have occurred if it was not for social media is so misleading. To be clear, the
responsibility for those events rests squarely with the perpetrators of the violence, and those in
politics and elsewhere who actively encouraged them. Mature democracies in which social
media use is widespread hold elections all the time – for instance Germany’s election last week
– without the disfiguring presence of violence. We actively share with Law Enforcement material
that we can find on our services related to these traumatic events. But reducing the complex
reasons for polarization in America – or the insurrection specifically – to a technological
explanation is woefully simplistic.
We will continue to face scrutiny – some of it fair and some of it unfair. We’ll continue to be
asked difficult questions. And many people will continue to be skeptical of our motives. That’s
what comes with being part of a company that has a significant impact in the world. We need to
be humble enough to accept criticism when it is fair, and to make changes where they are
justified. We aren’t perfect and we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we do the sort of
research that has been the subject of these stories in the first place. And we’ll keep looking for
ways to respond to the feedback we hear from our users, including testing ways to make sure
political content doesn’t take over their News Feeds.
But we should also continue to hold our heads up high. You and your teams do incredible work.
Our tools and products have a hugely positive impact on the world and in people’s lives. And
you have every reason to be proud of that work.
Mreso, Facebook executive Nick Clegg said in a defiant internal memo that a former employee will accuse the company of contributing to the U.S. Capitol riot, the New York Times first reported Saturday.
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Why it matters:
Facebook appears to be launching a pre-emptive strike against the whistleblower with the memo, also shared with Axios, ahead of her CBS “60 Minutes” interview airing Sunday and her scheduled appearance at a Senate hearing Tuesday.
She will accuse the tech giant on “60 Minutes” of contributing to polarization in the U.S., writes Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, in the memo.
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Clegg states that the program will “suggest that the extraordinary steps we took for the 2020 elections were relaxed too soon and contributed to the horrific events of January 6th in the Capitol.”
Driving the news:
The whistleblower will reveal her identity on “60 Minutes” and outline allegations based on thousands of pages of internal research she provided the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to CBS.
She claims she can “prove Facebook is lying to the public and investors about the effectiveness of its campaigns to eradicate hate, violence and misinformation from its platforms,” per CBS.
Facebook has been fielding criticism over its internal research into Instagram’s negative impact on teenage girls after the whistleblower leaked a trove of documents to the Wall Street Journal.
What they’re saying: “What evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarization,” Clegg states in the memo, sent Friday.
“[P]olarizing content and misinformation are also present on platforms that have no algorithmic ranking whatsoever, including private messaging apps like iMessage and WhatsApp.”
What to watch:
Clegg is due to appear on the CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday morning.
Representatives for CBS did not immediately respond to Axios’ request for comment.
Jack Dorsey of Twitter took a more conciliatory tone, saying: “We make mistakes in prioritisation and in execution.”
The hearing marked the third time the executives have been hauled before US politicians in less than six months as lawmakers seek to rein in Big Tech.
In a sign of the political anger the companies have generated, the three chief executives faced an overwhelmingly hostile interrogation from both parties.
While Democrats sought to focus on misinformation, Covid-19 and the Capitol riot, Republicans were more interested in complaining that social media companies were censoring conservatives.
Several members from both parties, however, spoke approvingly of limiting the legal protections for online platforms under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Under the law, companies are not legally responsible for the content users post on their websites. But many members of Congress want to restrict when those protections should apply.
Michael Doyle, a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania, said: “Time after time you are picking engagement and profit over the health and safety of your users, our nation and our democracy . . . We will legislate to stop this. The stakes are simply too high.”
In the same vein, Google’s Sundar Pichai spoke in more cautious terms about potential changes to the law, citing fears over “unintended consequences”, including harming free expression.
By contrast, Dorsey argued that neither a government nor a private company should be the arbiter of the truth — instead touting Twitter’s early efforts to build a “decentralised” content moderation system, which would be open source and not run by any one organisation.
The platforms ushered in eleventh-hour changes to their content moderation policies in the lead-up to the 2020 US election — as well as after the vote — in reaction to the fierce criticism from academics and the press.
Following the Capitol riot, in which five people died, many critics argued the measures were too little, too late and that enforcement was patchy — pointing to platforms’ failure to curb unfounded conspiracies pushed by Trump and his supporters of rigged voting machines.
During Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers made demands for more transparency and auditing of the platforms’ secretive algorithms.
When asked if he would consider opening up Facebook’s algorithms to scrutiny, Zuckerberg was hesitant, citing privacy concerns. But he added that it was an “important area of study”.
Dorsey said that “giving people more choice” about the algorithms that are served to them was vital to tackling misinformation and called for “more robust appeals processes”.
Zuckerberg also faced repeated questioning about Facebook’s effects on children’s mental health. The executive confirmed earlier reports from BuzzFeed that it was exploring setting up a child-friendly version of Instagram called “Instagram for Kids”.
While both Zuckerberg and Pichai were keen to engage with the committee’s questions, Dorsey could at times barely conceal his contempt.
Exasperated with some of the executives’ responses, Billy Long, a Republican from Missouri, asked the chief executives: “Do you know the difference between these two words: ‘yes’ and ‘no’?” Soon afterwards, Dorsey took to Twitter and put out a poll asking: “yes” or “no”.
Dorsey’s online response did not seem to have impressed the committee. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from New York, later noted drily: “Your multitasking skills are quite impressive.”