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6 revelations from the Facebook Papers

·Personal Finance Editor
·4-min read
Social media apps as they appear on a phone screen owned by Facebook: Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot after reporting the company's earnings with the Facebook Papers controversy still hanging over him (Source: AP/Getty)

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Sir John Dalberg-Acton said back in a time long before Facebook existed, and yet the saying still rings true.

Facebook is facing one of the biggest scandals of its lifetime, after thousands of pages of internal company documents obtained by Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower, were made public.

Dubbed the Facebook Papers, they detail internal memos and research at Facebook claiming that the social media giant is not only aware of the hate it’s platform perpetuates but also has taken active decisions to not stamp it out.

Facebook’s earnings release overnight was overshadowed by the massive controversy, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressing the allegations.

On an earnings call following the release of its results Zuckerberg said: “I believe large organisations should be scrutinised, so I’d much rather live in a society where they are than one where they can’t be.”

“Good faith criticism helps us get better but my view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.”

Here are six of the biggest revelations from the documents laid bare.

1. The company is facing a massive internal struggle

The papers reveal that staff had been warning that the company was making mistakes in how it dealt with content on the platform and the damage it could be doing to users.

But, instead of the company heeding it’s staff calls it instead led to internal dissent.

Following one incident where former US President Donald Trump suggested protestors should be shot on the platform, one staffer complained.

“I have seen many colleagues that are extremely frustrated and angry, while at the same time, feeling powerless and (disheartened) about the current situation,” wrote the employee, whose name was redacted.

“My view is, if you want to fix Facebook, do it within.”

2. Facebook is losing popularity

Facebook’s internal research found that the platform is bombing in popularity when it comes to teens and young adults.

The documents showed that US teens were spending about 16 per cent less time on Facebook, while new signups were also falling.

This was something that Zuckerberg also addressed on his earnings call, noting that competition from TikTok and Apple has been heating up.

“...during this period competition has also gotten a lot more intense, especially with Apple’s iMessage growing in popularity and, more recently, the rise of TikTok, which is one of the most effective competitors we ever faced,” he said.

3. Facebook has been used to incite ethnic violence

In probably one of the most controversial accusations, Haugen testified in a US Senate hearing in early October that documents reveal Facebook’s “destructive impact” on society.

An impact that she said has led to, among other things, ethnic violence in Myanmar and Ethiopia.

“My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning,” Haugen said.

“What we saw in Myanmar and are seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying, no one wants to read the end of it.”

4. Facebook’s refusal to change is due to profit chasing

According to Haugen, Facebook is aware of the damage it is causing, but it fears doing too much to stamp out unwanted behaviour will drive down engagement and, in turn, less advertising money.

“The dangers of engagement-based ranking are that Facebook knows that content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, a comment, or a reshare,” Haugen said.

“And it’s interesting because those clicks and comments and reshares aren’t necessarily for your benefit.”

5. Zuckerberg misled the public

According to reports from the Washington Post, the Facebook Papers revealed that Zuckerberg played down reports that the site amplified hate speech in a testimony to Congress.

According to reports, he was in fact aware that the problem was far larger than he publicly declared.

Internal documents seen by the Post claim that the social network had removed less than 5 per cent of hate speech from the site.

On top of this, they claimed that executives, including Zuckerberg, were well aware that Facebook was polarising people.

These claims have already been denied by Facebook, which said the Post has misrepresented the documents.

6. Facebook has different standards for different countries

While it makes sense that as different countries have different laws, there would be some differences in how the platform can run.

However, the files showed how nations with significant risk of war and other major harms are not covered by many of Facebook’s more developed protections.

Things like artificial intelligence tools that can detect hate speech and misinformation, and extra staff to deal with potential problems more quickly, were not made available to those nations according to The Verge.

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