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The Thune letter put Facebook on high alert. Then it sent him a page single-spaced letter explaining that it had conducted a thorough review of Trending Topics and determined that the allegations in the Gizmodo story were largely false. And so, just over a week after the story ran, Facebook scrambled to invite a group of 17 prominent Republicans out to Menlo Park.
The list included television hosts, radio stars, think tankers, and an adviser to the Trump campaign. The point was partly to get feedback.
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But more than that, the company wanted to make a show of apologizing for its sins, lifting up the back of its shirt, and asking for the lash. According to a Facebook employee involved in planning the meeting, part of the goal was to bring in a group of conservatives who were certain to fight with one another.
The power went out, and the room got uncomfortably hot. But otherwise the meeting went according to plan. The guests did indeed fight, and they failed to unify in a way that was either threatening or coherent. Some wanted the company to set hiring quotas for conservative employees; others thought that idea was nuts. As often happens when outsiders meet with Facebook, people used the time to try to figure out how they could get more followers for their own pages.
Afterward, Glenn Beck, one of the invitees, wrote an essay about the meeting, praising Zuckerberg. Inside Facebook itself, the backlash around Trending Topics did inspire some genuine soul-searching. But none of it got very far. A quiet internal project, codenamed Hudson, cropped up around this time to determine, according to someone who worked on it, whether News Feed should be modified to better deal with some of the most complex issues facing the product. Does it favor posts that make people angry?
Does it favor simple or even false ideas over complex and true ones? Ultimately, in late June, Facebook announced a modest change: The algorithm would be revised to favor posts from friends and family. To outsiders, though, the document came across as boilerplate. The most important consequence of the Trending Topics controversy, according to nearly a dozen former and current employees, was that Facebook became wary of doing anything that might look like stifling conservative news. And so a summer of deeply partisan rancor and calumny began with Facebook eager to stay out of the fray.
But Rupert Murdoch broke the mood in a meeting that took place inside his villa. The two tech giants had taken nearly the entire digital ad market and become an existential threat to serious journalism. They had helped to make things very hard for Google in Europe. And they could do the same for Facebook in the US.
Facebook thought that News Corp was threatening to push for a government antitrust investigation or maybe an inquiry into whether the company deserved its protection from liability as a neutral platform. Inside Facebook, executives believed Murdoch might use his papers and TV stations to amplify critiques of the company. News Corp says that was not at all the case; the company threatened to deploy executives, but not its journalists.
Back in , Facebook had come under criticism from 49 state attorneys general for failing to protect young Facebook users from sexual predators and inappropriate content. Concerned parents had written to Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who opened an investigation, and to The New York Times , which published a story.
When it comes to Facebook, Murdoch has been playing every angle he can for a long time.
When Zuckerberg returned from Sun Valley, he told his employees that things had to change. And they had to communicate better. One of his jobs was to help the company think through how publishers could make money on the platform. Shortly after Sun Valley, Anker met with Zuckerberg and asked to hire 60 new people to work on partnerships with the news industry. Before the meeting ended, the request was approved. But having more people out talking to publishers just drove home how hard it would be to resolve the financial problems Murdoch wanted fixed.
News outfits were spending millions to produce stories that Facebook was benefiting from, and Facebook, they felt, was giving too little back in return. Instant Articles, in particular, struck them as a Trojan horse. Publishers complained that they could make more money from stories that loaded on their own mobile web pages than on Facebook Instant.
They often did so, it turned out, in ways that short-changed advertisers, by sneaking in ads that readers were unlikely to see. After all, he would often ask, how exactly do walls and toll booths make the world more open and connected? The conversations often ended at an impasse, but Facebook was at least becoming more attentive.
In late August, everyone on the team was told that their jobs were being eliminated. Simultaneously, authority over the algorithm shifted to a team of engineers based in Seattle. Very quickly the module started to surface lies and fiction. Twitter was a tool for communicating directly with supporters and yelling at the media.
The campaign uploaded its voter files—the names, addresses, voting history, and any other information it had on potential voters—to Facebook. That allowed the campaign to send ads to people with similar traits. The money rolled in. Inside Facebook, almost everyone on the executive team wanted Clinton to win; but they knew that Trump was using the platform better.
If he was the candidate for Facebook, she was the candidate for LinkedIn.
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Through trial and error, they learned that memes praising the former host of The Apprentice got many more readers than ones praising the former secretary of state. A website called Ending the Fed proclaimed that the Pope had endorsed Trump and got almost a million comments, shares, and reactions on Facebook, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed. Some of the posts came from hyperpartisan Americans.
Some came from overseas content mills that were in it purely for the ad dollars. By the end of the campaign, the top fake stories on the platform were generating more engagement than the top real ones. Even current Facebookers acknowledge now that they missed what should have been obvious signs of people misusing the platform.
Management was gun-shy because of the Trending Topics fiasco; taking action against partisan disinformation—or even identifying it as such—might have been seen as another act of political favoritism. Facebook also sold ads against the stories, and sensational garbage was good at pulling people into the platform.
And then there was the ever-present issue of Section of the Communications Decency Act. If the company started taking responsibility for fake news, it might have to take responsibility for a lot more. Facebook had plenty of reasons to keep its head in the sand.
Roger McNamee, however, watched carefully as the nonsense spread. First there were the fake stories pushing Bernie Sanders, then he saw ones supporting Brexit, and then helping Trump. By the end of the summer, he had resolved to write an op-ed about the problems on the platform. But he never ran it.
I really want to help them. Now I am disappointed. I am embarrassed.
I am ashamed. Then, at a conference two days after the election, Zuckerberg argued that filter bubbles are worse offline than on Facebook and that social media hardly influences how people vote. Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for this article, but people who know him well say he likes to form his opinions from data. But the analysis was just an aggregate look at the percentage of clearly fake stories that appeared across all of Facebook. It was a number, but not a particularly meaningful one.
They seemed clueless and self-absorbed. Right after he landed in Lima, he posted something of a mea culpa.