Facebook’s disinformation problem is harder than it looks

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The fact that Facebook can distribute dangerous amounts of misinformation around the world in the blink of an eye is not a new problem, but the social network’s ability to do so got more than the usual amount of attention during the past week. President Joe Biden told reporters during a White House scrum that Facebook was “killing people” by spreading disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories about COVID-19, and in particular about the efficacy of various vaccines. As Jon Allsop reported in the CJR newsletter on Wednesday, Biden backtracked somewhat on his original statement after some pushback from the company and others: Facebook said that the country needed to “move past the finger pointing” when it comes to COVID disinformation, and that it takes action against such content when it sees it. Biden responded that his point was simply that Facebook has enabled a small group of about a dozen accounts to spread disinformation that might be causing people to avoid getting vaccinated, and that this could result in an increase in deaths.

Biden appears to have gotten his information about this “disinformation dozen” from a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which came out recently with research showing that the bulk of the disinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines appears to come from a handful of accounts. The implication of the president’s comment is that all Facebook has to do is get rid of a few bad apples, and the COVID disinformation problem will be solved. As Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times put it, however, Biden “reduced the complex scourge of runaway vaccine hesitancy into a cartoonishly simple matter of product design: If only Facebook would hit its Quit Killing People button, America would be healed again.” While Biden’s comments may make for a great TV news hit, solving a problem like disinformation at the scale of something like Facebook is much harder than he makes it sound, in part because it involves far more than just a dozen bad accounts. And even the definition of what qualifies as disinformation when it comes to COVID has changed over time.

As Jon Allsop described yesterday, part of the problem is that media outlets like Fox News seem to feel no compunction about spreading “fake news” about the virus in return for the attention of their viewers. That’s not a problem Facebook can fix, nor will ridding the social network of all hoaxes about COVID or vaccines make much of a dent in the influence of Fox’s hysteria — which information researcher Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkstein Center for Internet and Society has argued was much more influential during the 2016 election than any social-media network. But even that’s just the tip of the disinformation iceberg. One of the most prominent sources of COVID and vaccine disinformation is a sitting US member of Congress: Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia. Another, Robert F. Kennedy, is a member of one of the most famous political families in US history, and his anti-vaccination conspiracy theories put him near the top of the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “disinformation dozen” list. What is Facebook supposed to do about their repeated misstatements?

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New details on the friction Trump caused inside Facebook

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 created a significant amount of turmoil for Facebook, including accusations of improper data stewardship involving Cambridge Analytica, and a number of awkward appearances before Congressional committees, where founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about the social network’s role in spreading disinformation related to everything from the 2016 election to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. According to a new book by two New York Times reporters, Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, the fallout from these events didn’t just cause external problems. It also reportedly created a rift between the Facebook CEO and his second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer and a former Google executive, who was hired in part for her Washington connections. “Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg’s Partnership Did Not Survive Trump,” said the Times headline on an excerpt from the book, which is entitled “Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.”

In particular, the book alleges that Zuckerberg took control of almost all matters related to Trump, including how to handle his posting of hate speech and disinformation, matters that would previously have been handled by Sandberg — and decisions she reportedly disagreed with, but didn’t want to bring up with the Facebook founder. The company, not surprisingly, denies any and all reports of a rift between the two most powerful people at the top of the company. “This book tells a false narrative based on selective interviews, many from disgruntled individuals, and cherry-picked facts,” Dani Lever, a Facebook spokesperson, told Insider in a statement. “The fault lines that the authors depict between Mark and Sheryl and the people who work with them do not exist. All of Mark’s direct reports work closely with Sheryl and hers with Mark. Sheryl’s role at the company has not changed.”

The alleged friction between Zuckerberg and his second-in-command isn’t the only turmoil the company is dealing with as a result of its handling of Trump, according to the book. Frenkel and Kang report that there is a significant amount of dissent within the ranks of the company’s employees as well, especially over the social network’s failure to act quickly to stop the flow of disinformation from the president’s account. Kang told NPR’s Fresh Air podcast that one of the most fascinating things about doing the reporting for the book — which the authors said involved more than 400 interviews — was talking to employees who “kept trying to raise the alarm, saying ‘This is a problem. We are spreading misinformation. We are letting the president spread misinformation and it’s being amplified by our own algorithms. Our systems aren’t working the way we predicted and we should do something.'”

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Facebook launches Bulletin, its would-be Substack killer

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Three months ago, Facebook announced that it planned to offer a platform for writers and journalists to publish subscription newsletters, a product very similar to that offered by Substack, the venture-funded startup that has helped make subscription email newsletters a hot topic in journalistic circles over the past year. Last week, Facebook officially launched its new platform, known as Bulletin, along with a slate of high-profile writers, including author Malcolm Gladwell and sports reporter Erin Andrews. A blog post from Campbell Brown, the company’s VP of global news partnerships, and Anthea Watson Strong, product manager for news, said that Facebook has partnered with “a small, diverse group of voices… some of whom are up-and-coming writers looking to find and build their audience, while others already have “a long history of work and a sizable following.”

In addition to Gladwell and Andrews, the content creators who have partnered with the company so far include Jessica Yellin, a former White House correspondent for CNN; Ron Claiborne, a former ABC News correspondent; Mitch Albom, sportswriter and author of such books as Tuesdays With Morrie; and Tyler Cowen, a high-profile economist and founder of the blog Marginal Revolution. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in a Facebook Live audio session held as part of the Bulletin launch that he also hopes to convince local journalists to use the platform in the future. “Part of what I think we can try to do here is make a real investment in local news,” he said.

How the company will decide which local journalists to include was not disclosed, but Facebook said earlier this year that it intends to spend $5 million “to support local journalists interested in starting or continuing their work on our new platform for independent writers.” The company opened up an application process at the time, and said successful applicants would be paid a multi-year licensing fee, and receive other monetization tools and services, but would have to commit to engaging with their audience “through Facebook tools such as Groups, live discussions, and other features.”

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