OK, STRAP IN, NERDS:
There’s so much reporting out there from the consortium of news outlets on ‘The Facebook Papers’ that I don’t really know what to do or where to start. Over at Protocol they’ve collected a running list of stories published and I count 50 pieces (as of Monday evening), many of them thousands of words long. Apparently, (according to Casey Newton and Kara Swisher) there are like six week’s worth of stories like this coming.
From what I’ve heard from journalists working with the huge set of internal Facebook documents, there’s so much more information in these documents than a single week’s news blitz could capture. Here are some good aggregation posts (I thought that this longer piece does a great job combining and contextualizing the broad focus of some of the documents). What I’m going to offer below are some very scattered thoughts based on a day of reading through a lot of this.
NOTE: I saved what I think is the most interesting observation for last so if you want the meat without the other stuff, scroll to ‘What the hell happens now?’
Make the docs public.
Those I’ve spoken with say the documents are reasonably technical and scanning through them — even if the content isn’t perfect for a story — is very helpful for understanding Facebook’s culture, workflows, and general bureaucracy. No amount of leaked documents will capture every element of Facebook, The Company And Its Influence but it appears that sifting through this data set has given reporters — even those who’ve spent years honed in on Facebook’s nuances — a better understanding of the behemoth.
I think that’s great. One of the problems of reporting on big companies that have technical inner-workings and large bureaucracies is that it’s hard to get an immersive, representative view of the way things work. The Facebook Papers aren’t perfect but it sounds like they’re helpful and that might pay dividends in the way the company is covered down the line by journalists who’ve viewed them (for example: I’ve seen a lot more focus since Haugen’s leaking of the documents to the Wall Street Journal of the teams working feverishly inside the company to make the platform safer. That’s helpful nuance.).
It’s also why I think this document set ought to be made publicly accessible and searchable. I’ve been told by multiple sources that Haugen, etc. did not put any restrictions on news outlets in terms of sharing raw source materials, which is why I find it a bit curious that there are very few screenshots or slides floating around. The stories are a tremendous collective feat of synthesis/analysis/reporting but it’s still a bit strange a large number of stories show no primary source documents (Alex Kantrowitz has a Twitter thread with some screenshots that I appreciated). I imagine most of this is due to the fact that news organizations only recently received the files and were essentially on a tight, competitive deadline. I’m certain there are outstanding issues of privacy and name redaction, etc. to consider.
But it’s important that the public see the source material. Researchers, and not just those well-connected enough to be granted access, should be able to parse these materials with their own expertise and frames of reference. As I wrote above, simply spending time in the files will likely grant the academy that same helpful perspective on the company’s bureaucracies/processes. For the press, documents are always a helpful way to bolster the stories’ credibility. But, just as important, publishing the Facebook materials responsibly is ideologically consistent for news outlets. For years journalists (self very much included) have argued for greater transparency from companies like Facebook. Now is a chance for news outlets to model that transparency now that these organizations have information they clearly believe is very newsworthy. Plus, it’s just a good look to not appear ‘gatekeeper-y.’
The biggest story is global
I highly suggest reading Ellen Cushing’s piece, ‘How Facebook Failed The World’ over at The Atlantic. I think that, if there is one insight to privilege in the rash of stories this week, it is that the negative impacts of the platform outside the United States are the most concerning and damaging and still, somehow, under-reported. If there’s one thing that Facebook’s senior leadership should be held accountable for (and that should keep senior leadership up at night) it should be what’s described in these global-focused stories. I particularly appreciated Cushing’s framing here:
But these documents show that the Facebook we have in the United States is actually the platform at its best. It’s the version made by people who speak our language and understand our customs, who take our civic problems seriously because those problems are theirs too. It’s the version that exists on a free internet, under a relatively stable government, in a wealthy democracy. It’s also the version to which Facebook dedicates the most moderation resources. Elsewhere, the documents show, things are different. In the most vulnerable parts of the world—places with limited internet access, where smaller user numbers mean bad actors have undue influence—the trade-offs and mistakes that Facebook makes can have deadly consequences.
I would also suggest this Wall Street Journal piece on Facebook fomenting religious hatred in India. The results are what we’ve long assumed/known and yet still somehow still worse.
This is a bad argument.
Nick Clegg is Facebook’s VP of global affairs and communications and over the weekend he parroted the talking point that the press has an axe to grind with Facebook, specifically because it took away its role as The Information Gatekeepers and democratized information (congrats to them!).
There’s a line of argument that Clegg’s take is not totally wrong. There are some parallels between this ‘loss of gatekeeper status’ Clegg uses and the argument the my former colleague Joe Bernstein makes in Harper’s that, “Big Disinfo can barely contain its desire to hand the power of disseminating knowledge back to a set of ‘objective’ gatekeepers.” Now, I happen to think Bernstein is cautioning and pushing for more rigor in the disinformation field in good faith and Clegg is mostly just scrambling for some kind of shield in a shitstorm and resorted to this line, which is often deployed in bad faith.
Clegg’s argument is mostly bullshit but there are shreds of truth. Yes, the press generally does hate it when they have to compete with an alternate information ecosystem that operates without any of the same standards, rigors. Yes, journalists dislike it when a painstakingly reported piece on policy can’t get 1/100,000th of the amplification as a person ‘just asking some questions’ about COVID vaccines. I think there’s also justified resentment among members of the press that true grifters, many of whom are barely even trying, are able to leverage platforms that are asleep at the wheel to access massive pools of attention with their reckless version of journalism that foments white grievance, legitimate conspiracy theorizing, and violence. You don’t need to be in favor of a Ministry of Truth to be frustrated by this. But I think journalists do themselves a disservice by not just saying that, yes, we are way more attuned to how information is presented and delivered than most people and that it can feel pretty damn personal when the ecosystem we work in is polluted by blatant garbage.
Of course the big flaw in Clegg’s rather shallow argument is that the Facebook Papers reveal that the dissent and concern isn’t coming from media figures…but Facebook’s own employees. These are the people that believe enough in the platform that they can stomach working there (if only to try and help it). You are not going to find a group of people more committed to empowering people and creating new communities outside of legacy institutions. Nick, your employees are the ones saying things like, “history will not judge us kindly” and we’re not a neutral entity and “we’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.” The call is coming inside the house, my guy.
But Clegg is right that the certain members of the press picked up on this and have been banging the drum rather incessantly. Among digital media especially, there was a realization in the mid 2010s of Facebook’s real power to harness attention and lavish publications with page views and/or turn off the firehose in a moment’s notice. I really noticed it first-hand while working at BuzzFeed. In November 2013, I saw that Facebook referrals to publishers in BuzzFeed’s partner network increased by 69 percent out of nowhere. I wasn’t particularly jazzed or upset by this, nor were most people I knew. But it was a bit of early recognition of the platform’s size and power to direct audiences and amplify content. I know that nobody really knew what to think of it in 2013 but I do think that it’s no surprise that a lot of the best Facebook reporters came from digitally native publications. It wasn’t coverage driven out of animus or personal vendetta, but out of a first hand knowledge of the platform’s size and scope.
Slight Rorschach Test
This is a bit of media nerdery (and thus quite secondary) but I found it kind of interesting to see what different media outlets highlighted and the ways they framed the stories. I don’t mean this as a criticism and genuinely think it’s interesting to watch how publications take the same material and present it to what they believe is their audience. I’ve long joked about finding ‘the tech angle’ in different stories. Here you can publications find their angles (like POLITICO and Bloomberg below):
Facebook's 'fatal flaw': Staff spar over the sway of their lobbyists — POLITICO
Facebook, alarmed by teen usage drop, left investors in the dark — Bloomberg
As a few people pointed out, there were even some seemingly (small) contradictory conclusions drawn by different stories. One POLITICO story focused on Facebook and anti-trust suggested that “internal documents show that the company knows it dominates the arenas it considers central to its fortunes.” While other stories, like from The Verge and The Atlantic mention Facebook struggling to retain young users and a sense of the zeitgeist in concerning, perhaps existential ways.
I don’t think anyone’s wrong here. In fact, I think this 40-story news dump is really helpful in illustrating the scale of Facebook and the challenges it poses. Many things can be true about the company at once (it’s quite politically and economically powerful while also staring at a very worrying and threatening user/growth cliff). Facebook is…how do you say…too big.
What the hell happens now?
Yesterday was a profoundly disorienting day for me, a run-of-the-mill bearded white guy who has written and reported critically about Facebook for ten years now. This will sound dumb but it feels a little like how I imagine it must feel to have a kid graduating high school. It’s kind of a momentous day and you feel really personally involved but at the end of the day it’s not really your thing/accomplishment. In the grand scheme of ‘Reckoning With Facebook’ something important happened this week. It feels like it marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. But I’m not sure what happens now.
I really related to what my fellow Sidechanneler, Ryan Broderick wrote yesterday afternoon:
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what do with all of this. I’m not sure what more we need to know before something is done. Nor am I even sure anything can be done now. After almost a decade of writing about it and talking about it, I honestly feel numb to the whole thing.
The Facebook Papers are clearly important. They are internal documented proof of things that reporters and researchers have been ringing alarms about for years. It’s vital work. And the scale of the coordinated roll-out feels commensurate with the scale of the platform it is trying to hold accountable (It’s fascinating to imagine what the total number of Facebook Files/Facebook Papers pageviews is). That matters.
And yet I’m not sure what’s going to come of it. In a hopeful imagining, the revelations kick off genuine, creative, only semi-partisan regulatory conversations about the platform. Or perhaps they force mass resignations inside the company that lead to some kinds of reforms to retain talent. Perhaps something truly wild happens that creates legal trouble/liability for the company’s executive leadership. Who knows?!
The dismal imagining is that revelations from the Facebook Papers confirm a lot of what everyone from activists to journalists to lawmakers knew or suspected and lawmakers don’t react proportionally. Other grim potential outcomes are that there’s simply information overload from too many stories at once or that this cycle is eventually lost to the very algorithmically driven, fast-churn news cycles that Facebook helped create. I am curious and unsure, for example, about what happens to any regulatory Facebook momentum if the former president decides to launch a political campaign in earnest soonish.
If the regulatory reformers get their wish, there’s a whole host of thorny questions and contentious debates waiting in the ‘How Do You Fix Facebook’ category. There are all kinds of interesting ideas — I suggest you read Will Oremus on ideas for congress to regulate Facebook’s algorithms. I include myself in the camp of people who are quite worried that potential platform ‘fixes’ might jack up the internet in unforeseen ways. Just two weeks ago Democrats proposed a new Section 230 "reform" bill that Fight For The Future director, Evan Greer noted would “function more like a 230 repeal than reform, because it opens the floodgates for frivolous lawsuits claiming algorithmically amplified user content caused harm (a wildly broad category for an enormous amount of content).” This is merely one very small example to highlight that we’re in complicated and still treacherous territory even if/when there’s consensus to ‘fix Facebook.’
Of course you can’t really ‘fix Facebook’ — at least not in any tidy/quick way. You can certainly make it safer (though as years of reporting and Haugen’s ‘Papers’ show, that would require rather substantially making Facebook less like Facebook). And if this week’s reporting has shown anything, it’s that even people inside the company who were hired to study and provide guidance on ways to make the platform safer have found it nearly impossible to push for change at the necessary scale, thanks to executive leadership.
I was struck recently by a line in the opening post of Max Read’s new Substack. “To consider…Facebook only in terms of a value proposition — net good or net bad for humanity — is to miss that it shapes the world as much as the world shapes it.” This sounds simple but it’s actually a dizzying idea that’s almost impossible to unpack without living outside of our current history. Big Tech has largely succeeded in re-imagining and re-making parts of our culture, government (Republican politics is legitimately like 51 percent professional shitposting), and economy.
But Big Tech doesn’t just act on these institutions/forces, they are all horrendously interwoven, making each node in the tangled ecosystem…worse? More complicated? You can make Facebook or YouTube safer. But you can’t necessarily change the ways all this shit has changed us or the ways it will continue to distribute/re-distribute money, power, influence, culture, and information. You can probably find ways to ameliorate the inequalities some but ‘fix’ is an impoverished word when it comes to Facebook. Fix…what exactly? And how exactly? Can we even decide and agree on what to fix and how? You tell me. But before you do, here’s what the Republican leader in the House said yesterday in response to the Facebook Papers:
For those uninterested in reading the tweet above (I get it!) he’s basically ignoring the content and making up his own (false) takeaways to justify his politics. Classic!
I don’t know what comes next but I’m concerned. I’m concerned that Facebook is too big. I’m concerned that people might tuning out due to over-saturation. I’m concerned that the ‘fixes’ that could come from this momentum are going to be extremely treacherous, too. I’m also concerned that we’re late (not too late…just late). It strikes me as noteworthy that we’ve caught up to what Facebook hath wrought (2012-2020) and Mark Zuckerberg and executive leadership seem to regard that version of Facebook as almost an outdated node of the company. They’ve got a new digital realm to colonize: The Metaverse!
Also, Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem, at present, to be budging (just say ‘fake news,’ Mark!):
But I’m also worried because it’s going to be hard to untangle Facebook and the rest of the platforms from, well, everything else, including the way these platforms have changed us — the way that the architecture and nature of these platforms act on us and how we, even reluctantly or unwittingly, absorb some of their characteristics. That reckoning will be particularly painful and I’m not sure we fully possess the language or countervailing institutions or historical hindsight to start that work in earnest right now.
Something that strikes me about these "papers" is that we're still sort of using the Watergate playbook after all these years. The press reports outrageous things and the people with power, given new information and new outrage from the public, is spurred to action.
None of these reports has had as much of an effect on Facebook's stock price as the change Apple made to allow users to opt out of tracking. The Watergate playbook worked during an age that was fundamentally more democratic than our own. Government ability to act on large collective problems caused by large corporations has been effectively neutralized by the last 50 years of politics.
Personally I don't think anything meaningful will happen absent collective action by Facebook workers.
Fascinating piece, Charlie. When reading all of these reports over the past few years — and especially the reports of extremists organizing and communicating through FB — what keeps coming to mind is the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, and the role propaganda (spread by radio) played in inciting and inflaming all of the bloodshed there.
The difference, it feels like, is we can talk about that clearly now. It was obvious from the start how the extremists there used radio as an essential tool to encourage people to slaughter their enemies (around 800,000 people were killed, most hacked to death with machetes). There was no libertarian-techbro culture around radio; owners of radio stations and radio technicians didn’t circle the wagons around themselves and their technology to insist they’d played no role in what happened.
There is something deeply anti-social at its core about our tech culture today; there is a desire to change the world wedded to an absolute refusal to feel any responsibility toward that world that, even now after all we know, still shocks me.