Facebook goes on the offensive against critical reporting

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

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and widespread criticism that Facebook had helped to destabilize the process by enabling Russian trolls and spreading disinformation, the company seemed to strike mostly an apologetic tone. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, occasionally seemed defensive in his subsequent testimony before Congress, but the general sense was that he and the company were sorry for playing a role in those events, and were trying to do better. However, more recently Facebook appears to be taking a much more aggressive approach to criticism, if the company’s response to recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times is any indication. The social network also seems to be trying to shift public opinion by inserting positive stories about Facebook into users’ news feeds, while Zuckerberg is doing his best to stay out of the fray.

After a series of Journal articles detailing how Facebook has a special program that allows celebrities to get around the platform’s rules of behavior, and has ignored the advice of its own researchers in its drive for growth at both Facebook and Instagram, the company responded with a lengthy blog post written by Nicholas Clegg, vice-president of global affairs and a former deputy prime minister in the UK. In it, the Facebook executive said the stories “contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do,” and that the reporting from the Journal “conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.” The central allegation in the series, he said — that the company conducts research, and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient — is “just plain false.”

In the past, given such accusations, Zuckerberg might have penned his own blog post explaining the company’s behavior, as he did when Facebook said it was moving discussions on the platform toward private groups and encrypted messaging, or when he was describing his commitment to free speech, or when he discussed the decision to permanently block Donald Trump from the platform. In this case, Facebook decided to expand on Clegg’s argument in a separate post, but the post was not signed by anyone. In it, the company tried to highlight some of the positive work it has done on disinformation and abuse, including the fact that it has 40,000 people working on safety and security, and has invested more than $13 billion to protect users (which a former Facebook executive pointed out is about four percent of the company’s revenue).

According to reporting from The Information and others, Zuckerberg has been making a concerted effort recently to stay out of the line of fire when it comes to critical coverage of the company, and instead has focused on promoting himself as a fun-loving guy who just enjoys running his trillion-dollar company and having a good time with his friends. The Times reports that the company is also trying to sway public opinion towards Facebook by stuffing positive stories into users’ news feeds as part of something called Project Amplify. In another sign of its new aggressive approach to criticism, a spokesman took issue with the story on Twitter, accusing reporter Ryan Mac (who co-wrote the piece with Sheera Frenkel) of inventing a meeting that never occurred, and describing the project inaccurately to make the company look bad.

The spokesman said that the project was not unusual at all, but was a “test for an informational unit clearly marked as coming from Facebook,” and that it was no different from the kinds of self-promotional programs that other technology and consumer products companies engage in. Shira Ovide of the Times noted that while other companies might do similar things, “Coke and Spotify do not control the levers to one of the most powerful information distribution systems in the world.” Zuckerberg’s only public response so far, to either the Journal series or the Times story, is a comment on his Facebook page about how the Times originally described him as riding an electric surfboard in a previous post, when what he was really doing, he said, was riding a hydrofoil “that I was pumping with my own legs.”

In a response to a comment from a Facebook user on that post, Zuckerberg stated that the Times description was defamatory, although it’s not clear whether this was meant as a joke. The Times has modified its description of the surfboard.

Here’s more on Facebook:

Fairness: The Oversight Board, a semi-independent body that was created by Facebook to adjudicate disputes about content removals on the platform and theoretically has the ability to tell the social network what to do, has asked the company for an explanation of its XCheck (pronounced CrossCheck) program. As reported by the Journal in a recent story, the program allows influencers and celebrities to avoid repercussions for breaking the platform’s rules. Facebook must “commit to transparency” and to treating all users fairly, the Oversight Board said.

Scams: An investigative report from ProPublica says that Facebook’s Marketplace online classified business is a financial success, with more than one billion users a month, but that it is not nearly as safe for buyers and sellers as the company has claimed. “Facebook says it protects users through a mix of automated systems and human reviews. But a ProPublica investigation based on internal corporate documents, interviews and law enforcement records reveals how those safeguards fail to protect buyers and sellers from scam listings, fake accounts and violent crime.”

Apple: Facebook said Wednesday that changes to Apple’s new privacy terms will continue to cause problems for its advertising business in the third quarter, Axios reported. “The update signals to investors that the company is seeing numbers in the current quarter that reinforce previous warnings about impact from Apple’s changes,” the report says. “The admission is likely to intensify an ongoing spat between Facebook and Apple — Facebook has been saying for months that Apple’s tracking changes are not about privacy, but rather a move to assert dominance.”

Other notable stories:

According to a report from The Information, sports publisher The Athletic has hired an investment bank to try to find a buyer for the company and is looking to be acquired for at least $750 million. Earlier reports said The Athletic held talks about a potential acquisition with both Axios (which itself had acquisition talks with German media company Axel Springer) and with the New York Times, but both sets of talks ultimately fell through. The Information report also said that The Athletic might decide to raise more venture capital rather than being acquired.

The Markup says that research done as part of its Citizen Browser project, in partnership with Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, shows that content posted on Facebook by the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland or AFD party in that country has had three times as much reach as content from other political parties in the advance of an election to replace Angela Merkel, Germany’s long-serving chancellor, later this month. The project collects data from a panel of Facebook users who agree to install software that will monitor their Facebook feeds.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, told employees in an internal memo that those who leak information to the press about the company’s affairs “do not belong at Apple.” The memo was promptly leaked, as reported by The Verge. Cook told staff that the company is doing “everything in our power to identify those who leaked” information about an internal briefing. “We do not tolerate disclosures of confidential information, whether it’s product IP or the details of a confidential meeting.” he wrote.

Michael Azerrad, author of a book about former punk-rock musician Kurt Cobain, writes in a piece for the New Yorker about his own complicity in creating the legend of Nirvana.
“Kurt, being a student of rock history, knew that the story of a rock band is essentially a legend—in the sense that there’s some wiggle room in the truth as long as it serves the over-all myth,” he writes. “Sometimes journalists play along because they’re naïve, lazy, or overworked, or they want to be in on the game because it makes for sensational copy. Whatever the reason, it works to the artist’s advantage.”

The former head of Ebony magazine, who was removed from his position last year, is among a group of people charged by the SEC with raising money for marijuana businesses but illegally using the cash for other things — including keeping the magazine afloat, according to a report by CBS Marketwatch. “Willard Jackson, 57, is accused of taking part in a scheme that crowdfunded nearly $2 million for a series of marijuana-related real estate ventures,” the report says, but the principals kept the money for themselves, according to securities regulators.

For CJR, Sara Sheridan interviews Christopher Mergerson, a fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who has been studying how media outlets in the South conducted their coverage of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. As large legacy publications such as Gannett and the Los Angeles Times have “recently undergone internal soul-searching and reckonings with their histories of poor coverage of communities of color,” as Mergerson puts it, his research “offers a sense of how the news can be better shaped to foster trust, diversity and inclusion.”

Phones sold in Europe by Chinese giant Xiaomi have the built-in ability to detect and censor terms such as “free Tibet”, “long live Taiwan independence” or “democracy movement,” according to cybersecurity researchers who work for the government in Lithuania. The capability in one of Xiaomi’s phones is normally turned off for sale in the European Union region, the researchers say, but it can be turned on remotely at any time. “Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible,” the head of the country’s defence ministry told reporters during a press briefing.

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