Journalism is far from dead. Recently the Wall Street Journal started a deep dive into Facebook’s internal research and company documents on policy to uncover how the company really runs its platforms. We’ve done you the favor of wading through everything they uncovered and extracting the largest discoveries of the investigation, but first, let’s begin with a short monologue to add some historical context about how this war over the human mind began.
At the dawn of the post-World War II nuclear age, there was little to no break leading to the genesis of the cold war. The Soviet Union and the American CIA, both sought to exert their ideological wills upon the world through alternatives other than nuclear confrontation. This was later confirmed under freedom of information act requests. The Central Intelligence Agency was actively exploring a new frontier and a new kind of warfare. The conquering of the human mind, with the end goal of control over the global political terraforming of humankind.
Fast forward to 2015, A world simply inundated with information beginning to finally navigate the perils of a digital world, addiction to our smartphones and on-demand entertainment. 2015 was the first year we saw social media platforms being used across western democracies as data weapons to bend the masses to the ideologies of the powerful.
Campaigns began using tools to leverage the vast troves of information that the world willingly offered up to the internet, what the majority didn’t know is just how much these platforms understand us. These platforms became a new battleground to stir division forcing many unwittingly into cones of tunnel vision and partisan silos. In the wake of some of the most tumultuous social unrest in modern history, Facebook, pleaded ignorance, but now it’s become clear, not only do they fully know the extent of the danger of what they built, they doubled down. Here are some of the discoveries that were uncovered in the Facebook Files:
The average Facebook user is held to specific criteria for community standards, this however does not apply to everyone. A select group of politicians, celebrities, and influencers are exempt from these rules and standards. The program is known as Xcheck, it was initially built as a tool for quality control but then mutated into a tool to shield the powerful at the discretion of moderators and whatever their biases might be. This policy ultimately means an elite group can do and say whatever they want with no real repercussions by the platforms. This becomes regressive, if the “Whitelisted” really have such special privileges, this ultimately opens the door to sanctioned censorship against any large following influencers that wish to challenge those who are exempt from censorship rules.
Outrage Incentives — In the Fall of 2018, Jonah Peretti, the CEO of Buzzfeed emailed Facebook that divisive content is being rewarded and thus giving it an incentive to be further proliferated.
He cited a Buzzfeed article “21 Things That Almost All White People are Guilty of Saying,” which received 13,000 shares and 16,000 comments on Facebook. Buzzfeed was criticized for writing it while Facebook users viciously argued with each other about race. He noted that other content the media company produced, from news videos to articles on self-care and animals, had trouble breaking through. Peretti referenced recent major changes in the algorithm.
“Our approach has had unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content, such as politics and news,” — Facebook Researchers
Mark Zuckerberg later, claimed that the 2018 change was helping to bring people together but in reality, internal company documents show the problem got worse.
Research indicated that the platform did lead to meaningful shifts in political ideologies according to surveys. Publishers leveraged these changes to their advantage by producing more sensationalist content. Researchers noticed that the highest performing posts were content that was proliferating angry, false, and toxic narratives.
Facebook is aware of these problems but has a financial incentive not to change anything but has an incentive to make the problems worse rewarding outrage because outrage drives higher engagement which keeps people on the platform longer.
Any algorithmic changes that enabled meaningful tradeoffs with they have dubbed Meaningful Social Interaction (MSI) impact were effectively shut down — MSI (Meaningful Social Interactions) This means that any changes in how Facebook serves content that may lower engagement, which by their own data = less divisive content was not implemented.
Facebook’s own research shows that it has a serious mental health problem among adolescents. Teens across surveyed groups indicated that they had developed severe body dysmorphia and body self-esteem issues from Instagram. Across all surveyed groups teens consistently suggested that Instagram brought increases in anxiety and depression. Among Surveyed teens, 13% of European teens suggested that Instagram brought on suicidal thoughts, as well as 6% of American teens.
Facebook defended the findings, saying that the problem was very small and that the platforms do a lot of good.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg was brought in front of congress the internal research on the issues of Facebook were not included in the materials the company provided to the government. After an evasive hearing obfuscating away from any bad practices, Facebook has stated it does not send out its own researchers to regulators.
The time has come for the public to reign this in, Facebook is targeting the youth a product that in fact knows is dangerous. The interpretation of whether Facebook is a bad actor is no longer a question, by its own findings, it is just that. Insurmountable proof of a profit model built not on building more meaningful connections, but on the back of proliferating divisiveness, envy, hate, anger, and classism. We now know what Facebook is, it’s a platform of the seven deadly sins.