inside the summer of 2015, a Facebook engineer was combing through the company’s internal data when he noticed something unusual. He was searching to determine which websites received the most referral traffic through its billion-plus users. The top 25 included the usual suspects — YouTube in addition to the Huffington Post, along which has a few obscure hyperpartisan sites he didn’t recognize. With names like Conservative Tribune in addition to Western Journalism, these publications seemed to be little more than aggregation content mills blaring divisive political headlines, yet they consistently ranked among the most widely read websites on Facebook.
“Conservative Tribune, Western Journalism, in addition to Breitbart were regularly inside the top 10 of news in addition to media websites,” the engineer told BuzzFeed News. “They often ranked higher than established brands like the fresh York Times in addition to got far more traffic through Facebook than CNN. in which was wild.”
Troubled by the trend, the engineer posted a list of these sites in addition to associated URLs to one of Facebook’s internal employee forums. The discussion was brief — in addition to uneventful. “There was This particular general sense of, ‘Yeah, This particular can be pretty crazy, however what do you want us to do about in which?'” the engineer explained.
To truly understand how Facebook can be responding to its role inside the election in addition to the ensuing morass, numerous sources inside in addition to close to the company pointed to its unemotional engineering-driven culture, which they argue can be largely guided by a quantitative approach to problems. in which’s one in which views nearly all content as agnostic, in addition to everything else as a math problem. As in which viewpoint has run headfirst into the wall of political reality, complete with congressional inquiries in addition to multiple public mea culpas through its boy king CEO, a crisis of perception at This particular point brews.
Inside Facebook, many inside the company’s rank in addition to file are frustrated. They view the events of the last month in addition to those in which preceded in which as part of an unjust narrative in which’s spiraled out of control, unchecked. all 5 sources familiar with the thinking inside the company told BuzzFeed News in which many employees feel Facebook can be being used as a scapegoat for the myriad complex factors in which led to 2016’s unexpected election result. What the public sees as Facebook’s failure to recognize the extent to which in which could be manipulated for untoward ends, employees view as a flawed hindsight justification for circumstances in which mostly fell well beyond their control. in addition to as the drumbeat of damning reports continues, the frustration in addition to fundamental disconnect between Facebook’s stewards in addition to those wary of its growing influence grow larger still.
Today, the engineer’s anecdote reads as a missed opportunity — a warning of an impending storm of misinformation blithely dismissed. however inside Facebook in July 2015, in which seemed a rational response. At the time, the platform was facing criticism for what many believed to be overly censorious content policies, most notably a decision to ban breastfeeding photos which had only recently been reversed. A move to reduce the reach of nontraditional publications seemed certain to trigger a PR disaster at a time when Facebook was consumed by a troubling downturn in its core business metric — person-to-person sharing — in addition to battling Snapchat for fresh users.
“Things are organized quantitatively at Facebook,” the engineer said, noting in which the company was far more concerned with how many links were shared than what was being shared. “There wasn’t a team dedicated to what news outlets [were using the platform] in addition to what news was propagating (though there was a sales-oriented media partnerships team). in addition to why would certainly they have had one, in which simply wasn’t one of their business objectives.”
Yet in which failure to fully recognize a looming problem has engulfed the company inside the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. inside the past month alone, Facebook has disclosed to Congress 3,000 ads linked to Kremlin election manipulation, its CEO has publicly apologized for dismissing Facebook’s role in swinging the election as “a crazy idea,” in addition to in which has been attacked by President Trump on Twitter. in which’s also been criticized for surfacing fake news to its Las Vegas massacre “safety check” page, published full-page apology ads in major newspapers, in addition to been forced to update lengthy blog posts about its handling of the Russian ads when its explanations proved too murky. in addition to then there are the congressional probes — two of them — in addition to a pending bipartisan bill meant to force in which to disclose political ads. With the specter of government regulation hanging above in which, Facebook seems to have few, if any, friends right at This particular point inside the public sphere.
The public-facing crisis can be playing out internally as well, as employees wrestle with the election meddling in which occurred on its platform. Sources familiar with recent internal discussions at the company told BuzzFeed News in which plenty of employees are conflicted over the issue in addition to are demanding more clarity about the platform’s exact role inside the election. “Internally, there’s a great deal of confusion about what’s been done in addition to people are trying to come to terms with what exactly happened,” one of these people told BuzzFeed News.
Three sources close to the company described similar conversations, noting in which Facebook staffers feel some sense of responsibility for the platform’s misuse inside the election. “One of the things people inside are bemoaning can be the fact in which the response internally was very, very slow,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “in which’s because Facebook didn’t hold the expertise needed to spot in which until in which happened.”
The employee, who left the company recently, said in which Facebook was so focused on US-centric policies in addition to engaging with 2016 election campaigns in which in which didn’t bother to fully consider foreign interference. “There’s a feeling in which This particular kind of social engineering was happening all over the planet before our election — in places like Estonia, Poland, in addition to Ukraine. If there was a less US-focused approach in which may have been spotted in addition to acted on in real time,” This particular person said.
According to a Facebook spokesperson, responding on behalf of the company, “we take these issues very seriously. Facebook can be an important part of many people’s lives in addition to we recognize the responsibility in which comes with in which. in which’s also our responsibility to do all we can to prevent foreign interference on our platform when in which comes to elections. We are taking strong action to continue bolstering security on Facebook – investing heavily in fresh technology in addition to hiring thousands more people to remove fake accounts, bettering enforce our standards on hate in addition to violence, in addition to increasing oversight of our ad system to set a fresh transparency standard for the internet. This particular can be a fresh kind of threat, even though not a fresh challenge. Because there will always be bad actors trying to undermine our society in addition to our values. however we will continue to work to make in which a lot harder to harm us, in addition to ensure people can express themselves freely in addition to openly online.”
however the prevailing viewpoint within Facebook, according to numerous sources, can be in which the company has been wrongly excoriated for the misinformation in addition to election meddling enabled by its platform. “There are lots inside thinking, ‘We’re the victims,’” a source familiar with the current climate at the company told BuzzFeed News. “[They feel] in which This particular Russia stuff can be bigger than just Facebook’s responsibility — in which Facebook can be just a battlefield in a greater misinformation campaign in addition to in which in which’s up to the governments involved to resolve these issues.”
More broadly, multiple sources told BuzzFeed News in which some inside Facebook think the blame cast on the company by the media in addition to public feels reactionary in addition to somewhat hypocritical. “Before the election the digital community was complaining in which Facebook was This particular monopolistic power in which was overly censorious in addition to buttoned-up. in addition to at This particular point the same group can be saying, ‘how’d you let Breitbart in addition to fake news get out there?’” a second former employee who recently left the company said. “in addition to they have a point — ultimately in which’s because the election didn’t go the way they wanted. in which’s worth pointing out in which 12 months ago people said, ‘I hate Facebook because they don’t let all voices on the platform,’ in addition to they’re upset in addition to asking for Facebook to restrict what’s shown.”
“The view at Facebook can be in which ‘we show people what they want to see in addition to we do in which based on what they tell us they want to see, in addition to we judge in which with data like time on the platform, how they click on links, what they like,’” a former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “in addition to they believe in which to the extent in which something flourishes or goes viral on Facebook — in which’s not a reflection of the company’s role, however a reflection of what people want. in addition to in which deeply rational engineer’s view tends to absolve them of some of the responsibility, probably.”
For Facebook’s critics, This particular view can be tantamount to the company’s original sin — one in which’s exacerbated by its leakproof culture in addition to what some employees describe as a hive mind mentality.
Moreover, in which can be largely driven through the top down. CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to project two perhaps antithetical views: in which Facebook has great power to connect the planet for the better, however only limited influence when in which comes to efforts to destabilize democracy. A source who has worked closely with Zuckerberg said he sees the founder in addition to CEO as approaching Facebook’s role inside the election with none of the hysteria in which’s reflected inside the press.
“He’s treating in which which has a level of urgency,” This particular former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “We’re not going to see a knee-jerk reaction to This particular through him — he’ll be very restrained with any potential tweaks to the platform because he’s more interested in substance than optics.”
“Zuck tends to have a pretty unemotional in addition to macro–level view of what’s going on,” another former Facebook employee explained. “He’ll look at data through a macro level in addition to see the significance, however also see in which the data shows in which nobody wanted to read the liberal media stuff — in which [the mainstream media] didn’t target half the country with their content.”
For many outside observers, the idea in which the social network potentially played an outsize role in election interference by a foreign government can be confirmation of their worst dystopian fears. The fact in which the Russian ads were likely targeted using personal information provided by users themselves tugs at long-held suspicions in which Facebook knows too much about its users in addition to profits wildly through in which.
Yet those with knowledge of Facebook’s ad system say in which there’s a solid case to be made in which the disclosed Russian ad spend — in addition to even the reported millions of impressions those ads received — pales in comparison to the billions spent by political groups inside the run-up to 2016 on Facebook’s ad platform in addition to the hundreds of millions of impressions in which the platform delivers daily on all types of paid in addition to unpaid content. Basically: Facebook’s unprecedented scale, when applied to the Russian ads, renders the scandal’s impact far less consequential than news reports would certainly suggest.
The greater, perhaps more existential issues, former employees argue, are Facebook’s filter bubbles, the increasing misinformation in addition to hyperpartisan news in which flourishes there as a result, in addition to the platform’s role as arguably the single largest destination for news consumption.
Sources familiar with recent discussions inside Facebook told BuzzFeed News there’s some concern in which the strong reaction to 2016 election meddling in addition to the desire for fast reform could push the company to assume a greater role in determining what can be or isn’t legitimate news. “in which Facebook played a significant part as perhaps the most important online venue in This particular election can be not up for debate,” one of these people said. “however what we need to be debating can be: What can be Facebook’s role in controlling the outcomes of elections? I’m not sure anyone outside Facebook features a Great proposal for in which.”
Facebook, too, has long been concerned about assuming any sort of media watchdog role in addition to the company’s objection usually takes the form — as in which did last week in an interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — of its well-worn argument in which Facebook can be a technology company, not a media company. “We hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters. No one can be a journalist. We don’t cover the news,” Sandberg told Axios’s Mike Allen.
Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook employee who helped lead the company’s early ad platform, worries in which the momentum to correct for what happened during the 2016 election will push Facebook a step too far. “Everyone fears Facebook’s power, in addition to as a result, they’re asking them to assume more power in form of human curation in addition to editorial decision-generating,” he said. “I worry in which two or three years through at This particular point we’re all going to deeply regret we asked just for This particular.”
This particular gulf between the way the company sees itself in addition to the way in which can be increasingly being viewed by outside observers threatens to undermine Facebook’s awareness of crucial issues in which need to be addressed, he says.
To illustrate This particular, Martinez points to Facebook’s “filter bubble” problem — in which the platform’s design pushes its users into echo chambers filled with only the news in addition to information they already want, rather than the potentially unpopular information they might need. “What worries me can be in which we’ve talked about the filter bubble problem for years at This particular point. in addition to the company — in addition to all the different platforms — have largely batted the concerns aside. however finally we’re seeing the filter bubble at work at This particular point in a very real way,” he said. Facebook, Martinez suggests, will weather its PR struggles. What remains to be seen can be whether the company can learn through the chaos which has a better ability to see outside itself.
“I think there’s a real question if democracy can survive Facebook in addition to all the different Facebook-like platforms,” he said. “Before platforms like Facebook, the argument used to be in which you had a right to your own opinion. at This particular point, in which’s more like the right to your own reality.”
Meanwhile, those inside the company continue to struggle with what, exactly, the company can be, in addition to what in which can be responsible for.
“There are times when people at Facebook would certainly gloat about the power in addition to reach of the network,” a former senior employee said. “Somebody said which has a straight face to me not terribly long ago in which ‘running Facebook can be like running a government for the planet.’ I remember thinking, ‘God, in which’s definitely not like in which at all.'”
This particular post has been updated to clarify in which Zuckerberg dismissed Facebook’s role in changing the outcome of the election as a “crazy idea,” not the “fake news epidemic” as previously stated.