Facebook, show us the mess

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns . A internal communications stack gave us a rar...


This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

A internal communications stack gave us a rare, unvarnished look at Facebook’s self-examinations and deliberations on how people are influenced by product designs and company decisions.

Perhaps the public and Facebook would benefit if these glimpses weren’t so rare. Facebook and other internet powers could help us understand the world by showing us a little more of the messy reality of organizing virtual hangouts for billions of humans.

Something that pleasantly surprised me according to the report on the documents collected by Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager, shows how much thought and attention Facebook employees seemed to have devoted to evaluating business applications and how they shape what people do and how communities and societies behave. Facebook, show us that side of you.

Casey Newton, a tech writer, made this case last month: “What if Facebook systematically publishes its findings and allows its data to be audited? What if the company made it considerably easier for qualified researchers to study the platform independently? “

What if other tech companies did the same?

Imagine if Facebook had explained aloud how it fought the restriction of messages containing false information about fraud after the 2020 US presidential election and whether that risked silencing legitimate political discussions.

What if Facebook had shared with the public its private reviews a way to easily share many posts? amplified hateful or intimidating messages?

Imagine if Facebook employees involved in major product design changes could, like U.S. Supreme Court justices, write dissenting opinions explaining their disagreements to the public.

I know some or all of this sounds like a fantasy. Organizations have legitimate reasons for keeping secrets, including to protect their employees and customers.

But Facebook is no ordinary organization. She is one of a handful of companies whose products help shape human behavior and what we believe.

Knowing more about what Facebook knows about the world would help improve our understanding of each other and of Facebook. This would give outsiders the opportunity to validate, challenge and enrich Facebook’s self-assessments. And that could make the business a bit more trustworthy and understood.

Facebook said it believed reports on its internal communications lacked nuance and context. His reaction included curb internal deliberations to minimize leaks. And in my conversations with tech specialists this week, there is a fear that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others will react to weeks of tough Facebook reporting by less probing the effects of their products, or by keeping this. that they learn under lock and key.

But another way is to be more open and reveal a lot more. It wouldn’t be entirely unusual for Facebook.

In 2015, the company made public and discussed research by its data scientists who discovered that the social network did not aggravate the problem of “filter bubbles,”In which people only see information that confirms their beliefs. In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg published a long message detailing the company’s review of how Facebook users reacted to salacious or offensive content. That same year, Facebook revealed an ambitious project share huge amounts of messages and other user data with outside researchers to study harmful information.

These efforts were far from perfect. Notably, the independent research consortium was pursued by sloppy data and disputes on preserving people’s privacy. But the efforts show that Facebook sometimes wanted to be more open.

Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School who was previously co-chair of the research consortium, recently draft law that could allow independent researchers to access information about the inner workings of Internet companies.

He told me that he viewed the research consortium as “a slaughter on the highway to something glorious,” which would be both voluntary and forced transparency by the big internet companies. He praised Twitter, which last week posted a analysis of how its computer systems have, in some cases, amplified opinions on the political right more than those on the left.

Twitter searches were incomplete. The company said it didn’t know why some messages were circulating more than others. But Twitter was honest about what he knew and what he didn’t know, and gave the public and researchers a chance to dig deeper into their research. It showed us the mess.

Read more on Facebook from the New York Times Opinion:

Farhad Manjoo: Mistaken congressional proposals to fix Facebook are worse than no legislation at all.

Greg Bensinger: “Facebook has shown that it will not solve its systemic problems until it is forced to do so. Now it appears, only advertisers can make the status quo unprofitable and unsustainable. “

Kara Swisher: Mark Zuckerberg is No longer the beloved leader and cultural touchstone of Facebook.


  • Giant tech companies are always good at money: Google and Microsoft makes $$$$. Twitter is fine, too much.

  • Would you like to upload your passport to watch YouTube? My colleague David McCabe reports that more and more companies and countries are opting for digital age checks to try to keep young children out everything from video games to online pornography. But it’s hard to balance the benefits of anonymity online while keeping children safe.

  • Amazon is trying to talk on the radio, sort of: The Verge writes that Amazon is in the process of creating a new app that let anyone create a live audio show and let listeners ring with their voices. Is it smart or weird, or both?

It’s a Twitter feed of cows and beans that look like them. For real. (I saw this for the first time in the Garbage Day Bulletin.)




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