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15 September 2021
Findings from the Facebook document pile
Websites, online services, appsBrand safety
Facebook, the world’s most significant and scrutinised social media company, knows a lot about its internal problems, according to a trove of documents uncovered by the Wall Street Journal – here’s what we know.
Why it matters
Is Facebook a bad place to advertise? Still no. While it has since 2019 tried to implement more of a master brand ‘by Facebook’ strategy, one of its key strengths is that Instagram and WhatsApp enjoy an important separation from the mothership, at least in people’s minds. The other factor is that most of Facebook’s users now don’t live in the United States where this is major news.
However, the pressure is on, between reports of secret preferential treatment for VIPs and company knowledge of the mental health impact the company was having on its users , and the promise of more revelations to come. Those that are currently public have already drawn Senate attention.
It boils down to the fact that rules, laws, and even people are not prepared for a company, driven by potent and clearly effective recommendation algorithms, that is this consequential. Should an advertising destination – which is, ultimately, what Facebook Inc. is – touch this many people, be this opaque, and continue to be so successful despite ignoring problems that have been brought to its attention?
The Wall Street Journal’s reporting shows that Facebook’s own researchers have identified major problems with the service, not limited to policy exceptions and adverse effects on users, but that the platform has not fixed them. There are reasons both technical and commercial for some of these oversights.
The Journal’s first revelation surrounds XCheck – pron: Cross-Check – which was a technical solution to whitelisting some 5.8 million of the platform’s VIP users from rules around bullying, hate speech, sexual content that apply to everybody else automatically. XCheck is a review system that blocks automatic moderation of content posted by VIPs while it passes to a human moderator in order to avoid negative media attention from incorrect policy enforcement against influential celebrities and politicians.
One of the most egregious examples was when the footballer Neymar Jr. posted the name and nude images of a woman who had accused him of rape. In his counteraccusation of extortion on Instagram he posted images and content that clearly contravened the site’s policies, but XCheck allowed these to stand. Worse still, despite a one strike policy against posters of revenge porn, Neymar was allowed to keep his account.
The second story surrounds several reports, reviewed by senior leadership, that outlined the effect of Facebook platforms – especially Instagram – on young women and girls. Driven by the understanding that the platform is more geared to social comparison than its competition, many young women in the US and UK report feelings of unattractiveness, anxiety, and – among a minority – suicidal thoughts.
“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said a 2019 internal Facebook review of XCheck, adding that the policy was a “breach of trust”.