One day in late February of 2016, Mark Zuckerberg sent a memoranda to all of Facebook’s employees to address some troubling behavior in the ranks. His message pertained to some walls at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters where staffers are encouraged to scribble notes and signatures. On at the least got a couple of occasions, someone had crossed out the words “Black Lives Matter” and replaced them with “All Lives Matter.” Zuckerberg craved whoever was responsible to cut it out.
“’ Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t, ” he wrote. “We’ve never had rules around what people are able to write on our walls, ” the memo went on. But “crossing out something signifies stillness speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s.” The defacement, he said, was being investigated.
All around the country at about this time, debates about race and politics were becoming increasingly raw. Donald Trump had just won the South Carolina primary, flogged out at the Pope over immigration, and earned the enthusiastic supporting of David Duke. Hillary Clinton had just overcame Bernie Sanders in Nevada, simply to have an activist from Black Lives Matter interrupt a speech of hers to protest racially charged statements she’d induced two decades before. And on Facebook, a popular group called Blacktivist was gaining traction by detonation out messages like “American economy and power were is built around forced migration movements and torture.”
So when Zuckerberg’s admonition circulated, a young contract employee named Benjamin Fearnow decided it might be newsworthy. He took a screenshot on his personal laptop and mailed the image to a friend named Michael Nunez, who worked at the tech-news site Gizmodo. Nunez promptly wrote a brief story about Zuckerberg’s memo.
A week later, Fearnow came across something else he supposed Nunez might like to publish. In another internal communication, Facebook had invited its employees to submit potential questions to ask Zuckerberg at an all-hands meeting. One of the most up-voted questions that week was “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017? ” Fearnow took another screenshot, this time with his phone.
Fearnow, a recent alumnu of the Columbia Journalism School, operated in Facebook’s New York office on something called Trending Topic, a feed of popular news subjects that popped up when people opened Facebook. The feed was generated by an algorithm but moderated by a squad of about 25 people with backgrounds in journalism. If the word “Trump” was trending, as it often was, they used their news decision to recognize which bit of news about presidential candidates was most important. If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that ran viral, they had to keep that out. If something like a mass shooting happened, and Facebook’s algorithm was slow to pick up on it, they would inject a story about it into the feed.
Facebook prides itself on being a place where people love to work. But Fearnow and his squad weren’t the happiest plenty. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t truly part of Facebook. Plus, the young correspondents knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech corporations, for the most portion, prefer to have as little as is practicable to be undertaken by humans–because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They require bathroom transgress and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone presumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the person or persons on Fearnow’s team–who served partly to teach those algorithms–would be expendable.
The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he “ve noticed that” he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his telephone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recollects, he was nonetheless asked to be available in 10 minutes. Soon he was on a videoconference with three Facebook employees, including Sonya Ahuja, the company’s head of investigations. According to his recount of the meet, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nunez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t available to Facebook. He was burnt. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it, ” she informed him.
That same day, Ahuja had another dialogue with two seconds employee at Trending Topics named Ryan Villarreal. Several years before, he and Fearnow had shared an apartment with Nunez. Villarreal said he hadn’t taken any screenshots, and he surely hadn’t leaked them. But he had clicked “like” on the narrative about Black Lives Matter, and he was friends with Nunez on Facebook. “Do you think leakages are bad? ” Ahuja demanded to know, according to Villarreal. He was fired too. The last he heard from his employer was in a letter from BCforward. The corporation had given him $15 to embrace expenses, and it craved the money back.
The firing of Fearnow and Villarreal set the Trending Topics team on edge–and Nunez continued delving for grime. He soon published a story about the internal poll depicting Facebookers’ interest in fending off Trump. Then, in early May, he wrote an article based on conversations with yet a third former Trending Topics employee, under the blaring headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Repressed Conservative News.” The part suggested that Facebook’s Trending team worked like a Fox News fever dream, with a bunch of biased curators “injecting” liberal tales and “blacklisting” conservative ones. Within a few hours the part popped onto half a dozen highly trafficked tech and politics websites, including Drudge Report and Breitbart News.
The post ran viral, but the ensuing duel over Trending Topics did more than only dominate a few news cycles. In styles that are only fully visible now, it defined the stage for the most tumultuous two years of Facebook’s existence–triggering a chain of events that would distract and confuse the company while larger catastrophes began to engulf it.
This is the story of those two years, as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their epithets utilized, for reasons anyone familiar with the histories of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand.( One current employee would like to request that a WIRED reporter turn off his telephone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook .)
The narratives varied, but most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad styles their platform can be used for ailment. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external menaces, defensive internal computations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s guessing with its impact on global affairs and its users’ thinkers. And–in the tale’s final chapters–of the company’s earnest is making an effort to redeem itself.
In that saga, Fearnow plays one of those obscure but crucial roles that history occasionally hands out. He’s the Franz Ferdinand of Facebook–or maybe he’s more like the archduke’s hapless young assassin. Either style, in the rolled calamity that has enveloped Facebook since early 2016, Fearnow’s leaks likely ought to go down as the screenshots hear round the world.
By now, the story of Facebook’s all-consuming growing is practically the creation myth of our information age. What began as a behavior to connect with your best friend at Harvard became a way to connect with people at other upper-class schools, then at all schools, and then everywhere. After that, your Facebook login became a way to log on to other internet sites. Its Messenger app started rivalling with email and texting. It became the place where you told people you were safe after an earthquake. In some countries like the Philippines, it effectively is the internet.
The furious energy of this big bang emanated, in big component, from a brilliant and simple insight. Human are social animals. But the internet is a cesspool. That scares people away from recognizing themselves and putting personal details online. Solve that problem–make people seem safe to post–and they are able to share obsessively. Make the resulting database of privately shared information and personal connections available to advertisers, and that platform will become one of the most important media technologies of the early 21 st century.
But as powerful as that original insight was, Facebook’s expansion has also been driven by sheer brawn. Zuckerberg has been a decided, even ruthless, steward of the company’s manifest destiny, with an uncanny knack for placing the right gambles. In the company’s early days, “move fast and break things” wasn’t simply a piece of advice to his developers; it was a doctrine that served to resolve countless delicate trade-offs–many of them involving user privacy–in ways that best favored the platform’s growth. And when it is necessary to challengers, Zuckerberg has been relentless in either acquiring or dropping any challengers that seem to have high winds at their backs.
Two times that forced the platform to change
by Blanca Myers
Facebook suspends Benjamin Fearnow, a journalist-curator for the platform’s Trending Topics feed, after he leaks to Gizmodo.
Gizmodo reports that Trending Topics “routinely quelled conservative news.” The narrative mails Facebook scrambling.
Rupert Murdoch tells Zuckerberg that Facebook is wreaking havoc on the news the enterprises and threatens to cause trouble.
Facebook cuts loose all of its Trending Topics journalists, conceding authority over the feed to technologists in Seattle.
Donald Trump wins. Zuckerberg says it’s “pretty crazy” to imagine fake news on Facebook helped tip-off the election.
Facebook says conflict on fake news, hires CNN alum Campbell Brown to shepherd its relationship with the publishing industry.
Facebook announces that a Russian group paid $100,000 for roughly 3,000 ads aimed at US voters.
Researcher Jonathan Albright reveals that posts from six Russian propaganda reports were shared 340 million times.
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch get pummeled during congressional Intelligence Committee hearings.
Facebook begins announcing major changes, aimed to ensure that time on the platform is likely to be “time well spent.”
In fact, it was in besting merely such a rival that Facebook came to dominate how we discover and eat news. Back in 2012, the most exciting social network for distributing news online wasn’t Facebook, it was Twitter. The latter’s 140 -character posts accelerated the speed at which news could spread, allowing its influence in the news industry to grow much faster than Facebook’s. “Twitter was this massive, massive threat, ” says a former Facebook executive heavily involved in the decisionmaking at the time.
So Zuckerberg prosecuted a strategy he has often deployed against challengers he cannot buy: He copied, then crushed. He adapted Facebook’s News Feed to fully incorporate news( despite its epithet, the feed was originally tilted toward personal news) and adapted the product so that it indicated writer bylines and headlines. Then Facebook’s emissaries fanned out to talk with writers and explain how to best reaching readers through the platform. By the end of 2013, Facebook had doubled its share of traffic to news sites and had started to push Twitter into a wane. By the middle of 2015, it had outshone Google as the leader in pertaining readers to publisher sites and was now pertaining 13 times as many readers to news publishers as Twitter. That time, Facebook launched Instant Articles, offering publishers the chance to publish directly on the platform. Posts would load faster and look sharper if they agreed, but the publishers would give up an element of control over the contents. The publishing industry, which had been reeling for years, largely assented. Facebook now effectively owned the news. “If you could reproduction Twitter inside of Facebook, why would you go to Twitter? ” says the former executive. “What they are doing to Snapchat now, they did to Twitter back then.”
It is suggested that Facebook did not, nonetheless, carefully think through the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. Everyone in management cared about quality and accuracy, and they had put in rules, for example, to eradicate porn and protect copyright. But Facebook hired few journalists and spent little time discussing the big questions that bedevil the media industry. What is fair? What is a fact? How do you signal discrepancies between news, analysis, satire, and ruling? Facebook has long seemed to think it has immunity from those debates because it is just a engineering company–one that has built a “platform for all ideas.”
This notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company. When new recruits come in, they are treated to an direction lecture by Chris Cox, the company’s chief product policeman, who tells them Facebook is an entirely new communications platform for the 21 st century, as the telephone was for the 20 th. But if anyone inside Facebook is unconvinced by belief, there is also Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to recommend the relevant recommendations. This is the section of US law that shelters internet intermediaries from liability for the content their consumers post. If Facebook were to start creating or editing content on its platform, it would risk losing that immunity–and it’s hard to see how Facebook could exist if “its been” liable for the many billion parts of content a day that users post on its site.
And so, because of the company’s self-image, as well as its dread of regulation, Facebook tried never to favor one kind of news content over another. But neutrality is a selection in itself. For instance, Facebook decided to present every part of the information contained that appeared on News Feed–whether it was your puppy scenes or a news story–in approximately the same style. This meant that all news narratives seemed roughly the same as each other, too, whether they were investigations in The Washington Post , gossip in the New York Post , or flat-out lies in the Denver Guardian , an exclusively bogus newspaper. Facebook argued that this democratized datum. You realized what your friends wanted you to see , not what some editor in a Times Square tower chose. But it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t an editorial decision. It may be one of the biggest ever made.
In any case, Facebook’s move into news set off yet another explosion of ways that people could connect. Now Facebook was the place where publications could connect with their readers–and likewise where Macedonian teenagers could connect with voters in America, and spies in Saint Petersburg could connect with audiences of their own choosing in a way that no one at the company had ever seen before.
In February of 2 016, just as the Trending Topics fiasco was building up steam, Roger McNamee became one of the first Facebook insiders to notice strange things happening on the platform. McNamee was an early investor in Facebook who had mentored Zuckerberg through two crucial decisions: to turn down Yahoo’s offer of$ 1 billion to acquire Facebook in 2006; and to hire a Google executive named Sheryl Sandberg in 2008 to help find a business simulate. McNamee was no longer in contact with Zuckerberg much, but he was still an investor, and that month he started understanding things related to the Bernie Sanders campaign that worried him. “I’m find memes ostensibly coming out of a Facebook group associated with the Sanders campaign that couldn’t maybe ought to have from the Sanders campaign, ” he recalls, “and yet they were organized and spreading in this way that suggested somebody had a budget. And I’m sitting there envisioning,’ That’s really weird. I mean, that’s not good.’ ”
But McNamee didn’t say anything to anyone at Facebook–at least not yet. And the company itself was not picking up on any such worry signals, save for one blip on its radar: In early 2016, security and safety team noticed an uptick in Russian actors attempting to steal the credentials of correspondents and public figures. Facebook reported this to the FBI. But the company says it never heard back from the government, and that was that.
Instead, Facebook invested the springtime of 2016 very busily fending off accusations that it might influence the elections in a completely different route. When Gizmodo wrote its story about political bias on the Trending Topics team in May, the article went off like a bomb in Menlo Park. It quickly reached billions of readers and, in a delicious irony, appeared in the Trending Topic module itself. But the bad press wasn’t what really rattled Facebook–it was the letter from John Thune, a Republican US senator from South Dakota, that followed the story’s book. Thune chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which in turn oversees the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that has been especially active in investigating Facebook. The senator craved Facebook’s answers to the allegations of bias, and he wanted them promptly.
The Thune letter threw Facebook on high alert. The corporation promptly dispatched senior Washington staffers to meet with Thune’s team. Then it mailed him a 12 -page single-spaced letter explaining that it had conducted a detailed examination of Trending Topics and is of the view that the allegations in the Gizmodo story were widely false.
Facebook decided, too, that it had to extend an olive branch to the entire American right wing, much of which was raging about the company’s guessed perfidy. And so, just over a few weeks after the narrative operated, Facebook scrambled to invite a group of 17 prominent Republican out to Menlo Park. The list included television hosts, radio starrings, think tankers, and an adviser to the Trump campaign. The level was partly to get feedback. 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 meet, part of the aim was to bring in a group of reactionaries who were certain to fight with one another. They built sure to have libertarians who wouldn’t want to regulate the platform and partisans who would. Another objective, according to the employee, was to make sure the attendees were “bored to death” by a technical presentation after Zuckerberg and Sandberg had addressed the group.
The power went out, and the chamber got uncomfortably hot. But otherwise the meeting ran according to program. The guests did indeed oppose, and they failed to unify in a way that was either threatening or coherent. Some craved the company to set employ quotas for conservative employees; others thought that notion was nuts. As often happens when outsiders meet with Facebook, people employed the time to try to figure out how they could get more adherents for their own pages.
Afterward, Glenn Beck, one of the invitees, wrote an essay about the fulfill, praising Zuckerberg. “I asked him if Facebook , now or in the future, would be an open platform for the distribution of all minds or a curator of the information contained, ” Beck wrote. “Without hesitation, with clarity and boldness, Mark said there is only one Facebook and one track forward:’ We are an open platform.’”
Inside Facebook itself, the backlash around Trending Topics did inspire some genuine soul-searching. But none of it get very far. A quiet internal programme, 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 induce people angry? Does it favor simple or even false ideas over complex and true ones? Those are hard topics, and the company didn’t have answers to them yet. Ultimately, in late June, Facebook announced a modest change: The algorithm would be revised to favor posts from friends and family. At the same day, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s News Feed boss, posted a manifesto titled “Building a Better News Feed for You.” People inside Facebook spoke of it as a document approximately resembling the Magna Carta; the company had never spoken before about how News Feed truly worked. To strangers, though, the document came across as boilerplate. It said roughly what you’d expect: that the company was opposed to clickbait but that it wasn’t in the business of favoring certain kinds of viewpoints.
The most important repercussion of the Trending Topics dispute, according to almost a dozen former and current employees, was that Facebook became wary of doing anything that might definitely sounds like stifling conservative news. It had burned its fingers once and didn’t wishes to do it again. And so a summer of deeply partisan rancor and calumny began with Facebook eager to stay out of the fray.
Shortly after Mosseri published his guidebook to News Feed values, Zuckerberg traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, for an annual meeting hosted by billionaire Herb Allen, where mogul in short sleeves and sunglasses cavort and construct plans to buy each other’s companies. But Rupert Murdoch broke the feeling in a meeting that took place inside his villa. According to numerous accounts of the conversation, Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the CEO of News Corp, explained to Zuckerberg that they had long been unhappy with Facebook and Google. The two tech monsters had taken nearly the entire digital ad market and become an existential threat to serious journalism. According to people familiar with the conversation, the two News Corp leaders accused Facebook of attaining dramatic changes to its core algorithm without adequately consulting its media partners, wreaking havoc according to Zuckerberg’s whims. If Facebook didn’t start offering a better deal to the publishing industry, Thomson and Murdoch conveyed in stark words, Zuckerberg could expect News Corp executives to become much more public in their denunciations and much more open in their lobbying. 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 the working paper and TV stations to amplify critiques of the company. News Corp says that was not at all the suit; the company threatened to deploy executives, but not its journalists.
Zuckerberg had reason to take the fulfill especially seriously, according to a former Facebook executive, because he had firsthand knowledge of Murdoch’s skill in the dark artworks. Back in 2007, Facebook had come under criticism from 49 “states attorney” general for failing to protect young Facebook users from sexual predators and inappropriate content. Concerned mothers had writes to Connecticut us attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who opened an investigation, and to The New York Times , which published a tale. But according to a former Facebook executive in a position to know, the company believed that many of the Facebook accounts and the predatory behavior the letters referenced were fakes, traceable to News Corp lawyers or others working for Murdoch, who owned Facebook’s biggest challenger, MySpace. “We retraced the process of developing the Facebook reports to IP addresses at the Apple store a block away from the MySpace offices in Santa Monica, ” the executive says. “Facebook then retraced interactions to those used accounts to News Corp lawyers. When the time comes to Facebook, Murdoch has been playing every angle he can for a long time.”( Both News Corp and its spinoff 21 st Century Fox declined to comment .)
Zuckerberg took Murdoch’s menaces seriously–he had firsthand knowledge of the older man’s ability in the dark arts.
When Zuckerberg returned from Sun Valley, he told his employees that things had to change. They still weren’t in the news business, but they had to make sure there used to be a news business. And they had to communicate better. One of those who got a new to-do listing was Andrew Anker, a product administrator who’d been able to reach Facebook in 2015 after a career in journalism( including a long stint at WIRED in the ’9 0s ). One of his undertakings 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 session aimed, any such requests was approved.
But having more people out talking to publishers simply drove home how hard it would be to resolve the financial problems Murdoch craved set. News attires were expending millions to make tales that Facebook was benefiting from, and Facebook, they seemed, was dedicating too little back in return. Instant Articles, in particular, struck them as a Trojan horse. Publishers grumbled that they could construct more money from narratives 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. Facebook didn’t let them get away with that .) Another apparently irreconcilable difference: Outlets like Murdoch’s Wall street Journal depended on paywalls to make money, but Instant Articles banned paywalls; Zuckerberg disapproved of them. After all, he would often ask, how exactly do walls and toll booths stimulate “the worlds” most open and connected?
The dialogues often ended at an impasse, but Facebook was at least becoming more attentive. This newfound expressed appreciation for the concerns of correspondents did not, however, extend to the journalists on Facebook’s own Trending Topics team. In late August, everyone on the team was told that their jobs were being removed. Simultaneously, authority over the algorithm shifted to a team of technologists are stationed in Seattle. Very quickly the module started to surface lies and fiction. A headline days later read, “Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary.”
While Facebook coped internally with what it was becoming–a company that dominated media but didn’t want to be a media company–Donald Trump’s presidential campaign personnel faced no such confusion. To them Facebook’s use was obvious. Twitter was a tool for transmitting directly with supporters and hollering at the media. Facebook was the way to run the most effective direct-marketing political functioning in history.
In the summer of 2016, at the top of the general election campaign, Trump’s digital operation might have seemed to be at a major drawback. After all, Hillary Clinton’s team was flush with upper-class flair and got advice from Eric Schmidt, known for operating Google. Trump’s was run by Brad Parscale, known for setting up the Eric Trump Foundation’s web page. Trump’s social media director was his former caddie. But in 2016, it turned out you didn’t need digital experience operating a presidential campaign, you merely needed a knack for Facebook.
Over the course of the summer, Trump’s team turned the platform into one of its primary vehicles for fund-raising. The campaign uploaded its voter files–the epithets, address, voting history, and any other information it had on potential voters–to Facebook. Then, employing a tool called Lookalike Audience, Facebook identified the broad characteristics of, say, people who had signed up for Trump newsletters or bought Trump hats. That allowed the campaign to send ads to people with similar traits. Trump would post simple messages like “This election is being rigged by the media pushing false and unsubstantiated accusations, and outright lies, in order to elect Crooked Hillary! ” that got hundreds of likes, statements, and shares. The fund rolled in. Clinton’s wonkier messages, meanwhile, resonated less on the platform. Inside Facebook, almost everyone on the executive heads squad craved Clinton to win; but they knew that Trump was use the platform better. If he was the candidate for Facebook, she was presidential candidates for LinkedIn.
Trump’s candidacy also proved to be a wonderful tool for a new class of scammers pumping out massively viral and solely fake tales. Through trial and error, they learned that memes praising the former host of The Apprentice get 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 statements, shares, and reactions on Facebook, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed. Other narratives was argued that the former first lady had quietly been selling weapons to ISIS, and that an FBI agent suspected of leaking Clinton’s emails was found dead. Some of the posts came from hyperpartisan Americans. Some came from overseas content mills that were in it strictly for the ad dollars. By the end of the campaign, the top sham narratives on the platform were producing more engagement than the top real ones.
Even current Facebookers acknowledge now that they missed what “shouldve been” obvious signs of people misusing the platform. And looking back, it’s easy to put together a long listing of possible explanations for the myopia in Menlo Park about fake news. 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 narratives, and sensational garbage was good at pulling people into the platform. Employees’ bonuses can be based largely on whether Facebook reaches certain growth and revenue targets, which gives people an additional incentive not to obsess too much about things that are otherwise good for participation. And then there was the ever-present issue of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. If the company started taking responsibility for fake news, it might have to is responsible for a lot more. Facebook had plenty of reasons to keep its head in the sand.
Roger McNamee, however, watched carefully as the absurdity 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. “The idea was, look, these are my friends. I truly want to help them.” And so on a Sunday evening, nine days before the 2016 election, McNamee emailed a 1,000 -word letter to Sandberg and Zuckerberg. “I am really sad about Facebook, ” it began. “I got involved with the company more than a decade ago and have taken great pride and joy in the company’s success … until the past few months. Now I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed.”
It’s not easy to recognize that the machine you’ve built to bring people together is being used to tear them apart, and Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to Trump’s victory, and Facebook’s possible role in it, was one of peevish dismissal. Executives remember panic the first few days, with the leadership squad scurrying backward and forward between Zuckerberg’s conference room( called the Aquarium) and Sandberg’s( called Simply Good News ), trying to figure out what had just happened and whether they would be blamed. Then, at a conference two days after such elections, Zuckerberg was contended that filter bubbles are worse offline than on Facebook and that social media barely influences how people election. “The idea that fake news on Facebook–of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content–influenced the election in any way, I guess, is a pretty crazy suggestion, ” he said.
Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for this article, but people who know him well say he said that she wished to kind his opinions from data. And in this case he wasn’t without it. Before the interview, his faculty had worked up a back-of-the-envelope estimate showing that fake news was a tiny percentage of the total amount of election-related content on the platform. But the analysis was just an aggregate look at the percentage of clearly fake narratives that appeared across all of Facebook. It didn’t measure their influence or the lane fake news affected specific groups. It was a number, but not a particularly meaningful one.
Zuckerberg’s statements did not go over well, even inside Facebook. They seemed clueless and self-absorbed. “What he said was incredibly damaging, ” a former executive told WIRED. “We had to really flip him on that. We realized that if we didn’t, the company was going to start heading down this pariah route that Uber was on.”
A week after his “pretty crazy” comment, Zuckerberg winged to Peru to give a talk to global leader about the ways that connecting more people to the internet, and to Facebook, could reduce global poverty. Right after he landed in Lima, he posted something of a mea culpa. He explained that Facebook did take misinformation severely, and he presented a vague seven-point plan to tackle it. When a professor at the New School named David Carroll read Zuckerberg’s post, he took a screenshot. Alongside it on Carroll’s feed operated a headline from a fake CNN with an image of a distressed Donald Trump and the text “DISQUALIFIED; He’s GONE! ”
At the conference in Peru, Zuckerberg met with a man who knows a few things about politics: Barack Obama. Media reports portrayed the encounter as one in which the lame-duck chairwoman drew Zuckerberg aside and dedicated him a “wake-up call” about fake news. But according to someone who was with them in Lima, it was Zuckerberg who called the session, and his agenda was merely to convince Obama that, yes, Facebook was serious about dealing with their own problems. He genuinely wanted to thwart misinformation, he said, but it wasn’t an easy issue to solve.
One employee compared Zuckerberg to Lennie in Of Mice and Men — a man with no understanding of his own strength.
Meanwhile, at Facebook, the gears churned. For the first time, insiders really began to question whether they had too much power. One employee told WIRED that, watching Zuckerberg, he was reminded of Lennie in Of Mice and Men , the farm-worker with no understanding of his own strength.
Very soon after the election, a squad of employees started working on something called the News Feed Integrity Task Force, inspired by a sense, one of them told WIRED, that hyperpartisan misinformation was “a disease that’s sneaking into the entire platform.” The group, which included Mosseri and Anker, began to meet every day, use whiteboards to outline different ways they could respond to the fake-news crisis. Within the next few weeks the company announced it would cut off ad revenue for ad farms and make it easier for consumers to flag narratives they reckoned false.
In December the company announced that, for the first time, it would introduce fact-checking onto the platform. Facebook didn’t want to check facts itself; instead it would outsource the problem to professionals. If Facebook received enough signals that a tale was false, it would automatically be sent to collaborators, like Snopes, for examine. Then, in early January, Facebook announced that it had hired Campbell Brown, a former anchor at CNN. She immediately became the most prominent columnist hired by the company.
Soon Brown was put in charge of something called the Facebook Journalism Project. “We spun it up over the holidays, basically, ” says one person involved in discussions about development projects. The purpose was to demonstrate that Facebook was envisioning hard about its role in the future of journalism–essentially, it was a more public and organized version of the efforts the company had begun after Murdoch’s tongue-lashing. But sheer nervousnes was likewise part of the motivation. “After the election, because Trump won, the media threw a ton of attention on fake news and just started hammering us. People started panicking and get afraid that regulation was coming. So the team look back what Google had been doing for years with News Lab”–a group inside Alphabet that builds tools for journalists–“and we decided to figure out how we could put together our own packaged program that shows how seriously we take the future of news.”
Facebook was reluctant, nonetheless, to issue any mea culpas or action plans with regard to the problem of filter bubbles or Facebook’s noted propensity to serve as a tool for amplifying anger. Members of the leadership squad considered these as issues that couldn’t be solved, and maybe even shouldn’t be solved. Was Facebook genuinely more at fault for amplifying anger during the election than, say, Fox News or MSNBC? Sure, you could threw narratives into people’s feeds that contradicted their political standpoints, but people would turn away from them, just as surely as they’d flip the dial back if their TV quietly switched them from Sean Hannity to Joy Reid. The problem, as Anker puts it, “is not Facebook. It’s humans.”
Zuckerberg’s “pretty crazy” statement about fake news caught the ear of a lot of people, but one of the most influential was a security researcher named Renee DiResta. For times, she’d been studying how misinformation spreads on the platform. If you joined an antivaccine working group on Facebook, she observed, the platform might suggest that you join flat-earth groups or maybe ones devoted to Pizzagate–putting you on a conveyor belt of conspiracy reasoning. Zuckerberg’s statement struck her as wildly out of touch. “How can this platform say this thing? ” she recollects thinking.
Roger McNamee, meanwhile, was get steamed at Facebook’s response to his letter. Zuckerberg and Sandberg had written him back promptly, but they hadn’t said anything substantial. Instead he purposed up having a months-long, ultimately futile placed of email exchanges with Dan Rose, Facebook’s VP for partnerships. McNamee says Rose’s message was polite but also very firm: The company was doing a lot of good work that McNamee couldn’t see, and in any event Facebook was a platform , not a media company.
“And I’m sitting there running,’ Guys, seriously, I don’t think that’s how it works, ’” McNamee says. “You can declare till you’re blue in the face that you’re a platform, but if your users take a different point of view, it doesn’t matter what you assert.”
As the saying runs, heaven had not yet been fury like “ve been wanting to” hatred turned, and McNamee’s concern soon became a cause–and the beginning of an alliance. In April 2017 he connected with a former Google design ethicist named Tristan Harris when they appeared together on Bloomberg TV. Harris had by then gained a national reputation as the conscience of Silicon Valley. He had been profiled on 60 Minutes and in The Atlantic , and he spoke eloquently about the subtle tricks that social media corporations use to foster an addiction to their services. “They can amplify the worst aspects of human nature, ” Harris told WIRED this past December. After the TV appearance, McNamee says he called Harris up and asked, “Dude, do you need a wingman? ”
The next month, DiResta written an article comparing purveyors of disinformation on social media to manipulative high-frequency merchants in financial markets. “Social networks enable malicious performers to operate at platform scale, because they were designed for fast information flows and virality, ” she wrote. Bots and sock puppets could cheaply “create the illusion of a mass groundswell of grassroots activity, ” in much the same lane that early , now-illegal trading algorithms could spoof demand for a inventory. Harris read the article, was impressed, and emailed her.
The three were soon out talking to anyone who would listen about Facebook’s poison effects on American democracy. And before long they discovered receptive audiences in the means and Congress–groups with their own mounting grievances against the social media giant.
Even at the best of days, fulfills between Facebook and media executives can feel like unhappy household assembles. The two sides are inextricably bound together, but they don’t like each other all that much. News executives resent that Facebook and Google have captured roughly three-quarters of the digital ad business, leaving the media industry and other platforms, like Twitter, to fight over scraps. Plus they feel like the preferences of Facebook’s algorithms have pushed the industry to publish ever-dumber tales. For times, The New York Times resented that Facebook helped elevate BuzzFeed; now BuzzFeed is angry about being be replaced by clickbait.
And then there’s the simple, deep dread and mistrust that Facebook inspires. Every publisher knows that, at best, they are sharecroppers on Facebook’s massive industrial farm. The social network is approximately 200 times more valuable than the Times . And journalists know that the man who owns “the farmers ” has the leveraging. If Facebook wanted to, it could quietly turn any number of dials that would harm a publisher–by manipulating its traffic, its ad network, or its readers.
Emissaries from Facebook, for their proportion, find it tiresome to be lectured by people who can’t tell an algorithm from an API. They also know that Facebook didn’t win the digital ad market through luck: It constructed a better ad product. And in their darkest instants, they ponder: What’s the degree? News stimulates up only about five per cent of the total content that people visualize on Facebook globally. The corporation could let it all go and its shareholders would scarcely notice. And there’s another, deeper difficulty: Mark Zuckerberg, according to people who know him, prefers to think about the future. He’s less interested in the news industry’s troubles right now; he’s interested in their own problems five or 20 times from now. The editors of major media corporations, on the other hand, expresses concern about their next quarter–maybe even their next telephone call. When they bring lunch back to their desks, they know not to buy green bananas.
This mutual wariness–sharpened almost to enmity in the wake of the election–did not make life easy for Campbell Brown when she started her new occupation running the nascent Facebook Journalism Project. The first item on her to-do list was to head out on yet another Facebook listening tour with editors and publishers. One editor describes a fairly typical meeting: Brown and Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product policeman, invited a group of media presidents to gather in late January 2017 at Brown’s apartment in Manhattan. Cox, a quiet, suave man, sometimes referred to as “the Ryan Gosling of Facebook Product, ” took the brunt of the ensuing insult. “Basically, a bunch of us simply laid into him about how Facebook was destroying journalism, and he graciously absorbed it, ” the editor says. “He didn’t much try to defend them. I believe the point was really to show up and seem to be listening.” Other fulfills were even more tense, with the occasional comment from correspondents noting their interest in digital antitrust issues.
As bruising as all this was, Brown’s team became more confident that their efforts were valued within the company when Zuckerberg wrote a 5, 700 -word corporate manifesto in February. He had expended the previous three months, according to people who know him, contemplating whether he had created something that did more impairment than good. “Are we constructing the world we all want? ” he asked at the start of his post, implying that the answer was an obvious no. Amid sweeping statements about “building a global community, ” he accentuated the need to keep people advised and to knock out false news and clickbait. Brown and others at Facebook recognized the manifesto as a sign that Zuckerberg understood the company’s profound civic responsibilities. Others appreciated the document as blandly grandiose, showcasing Zuckerberg’s tendency had demonstrated that the responses to nearly any problem is for people to use Facebook more.
Shortly after issuing the manifesto, Zuckerberg set off on a carefully scripted listening tour of the two countries. He began popping into candy stores and dining room in red governments, camera crew and personal social media squad in tow. He wrote an earnest post about what he was study, and he deflected questions about whether his real goal was to become president. It seemed like a well-meaning great efforts to win friends for Facebook. But it soon became clear that Facebook’s biggest problems emanated from places farther away than Ohio.
One of the many things Zuckerberg seemed not to comprehend where reference is wrote his manifesto was that his platform had empowered an adversary far more sophisticated than Macedonian teens and assorted low-rent purveyors of policeman. As 2017 wore on, nonetheless, the company began to realize it had been attacked by a foreign affect procedure. “I would depict a real differences between fake news and the Russia stuff, ” says an executive who participated in the company’s response to both. “With the latter there was a moment where everyone said’ Oh, holy shit, “its like” a national security situation.’”
That holy shit moment, though, didn’t come until more than six months after the election. Early in the campaign season, Facebook was aware of familiar strikes emanating from known Russian hackers, such as different groups APT2 8, which is believed to be affiliated with Moscow. They were hacking into accounts outside of Facebook, stealing documents, then creating fake Facebook accounts under the flag of DCLeaks, to get people to discuss what they’d stolen. The company ascertained no signs of a serious, concerted foreign propaganda campaign, but it also didn’t think to look for one.
During the springtime of 2017, the company’s security squad began preparing a report about how Russian and other foreign intelligence operations had utilized the platform. One of its authors was Alex Stamos, head of Facebook’s security team. Stamos was something of an icon in the tech world for having reportedly resigned from his previous job at Yahoo after a conflict over whether to grant a US intelligence agency access to Yahoo servers. According to two people with direct knowledge of the document, he was eager to publish a detailed, specific analysis of what the company had observed. But members of the policy and communications team pushed back and cut his report way down. Sources close to the security team recommend the company didn’t wishes to get caught up in the political whirlwind of the moment.( Sources on the politics and communications squads insist they edited the report down, just because the darn thing was hard to read .)
On April 27, 2017, the day after the Senate announced it was calling then FBI director James Comey to testify about the Russia investigation, Stamos’ report came out. It was named “Information Operations and Facebook, ” and it made a careful step-by-step explanation of how a foreign adversary could use Facebook to manipulate people. But there were few specific instances or details, and there was no direct mention of Russia. It seemed bland and cautious. As Renee DiResta says, “I remember considering research reports come out and thinking,’ Oh, goodness, is this the best they could do in six months? ’”
One month subsequently, a narrative in Time suggested to Stamos’ squad that they might have missed something in their analysis. The article quoted an unnamed senior intelligence official went on to say that Russian spies had bought ads on Facebook to target Americans with propaganda. Around the same period, the security team also picked up suggestions from congressional examiners that constructed them believe an intelligence agency was indeed looking into Russian Facebook ads. Caught off his guard, the team members started to dig into the company’s archival ads data themselves.
Eventually, by sorting transactions according to a series of data points–Were ads purchased in rubles? Were they purchased within browsers whose speech were supposed to Russian ?– they were able to find a cluster of reports, funded by a shadowy Russian group “ve called the” Internet Research Agency, that had been designed to manipulate political opinion in America. There was, for example, a page called Heart of Texas, which pushed for the secession of the Lone Star State. And there are still Blacktivist, which pushed tales about police brutality against black men and women and had more followers than the verified Black Lives Matter page.
Numerous security researchers carry consternation that it took Facebook so long to realize how the Russian troll farm was exploiting the platform. After all, the group was well known to Facebook. Executives at the company say they’re embarrassed by how long it took them to find the fake accounts, but they point out that they were never devoted help by US intelligence agencies. A staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee similarly voiced exasperation with the company. “It seemed obvious that it was a tactic the Russians would exploit, ” the staffer says.
When Facebook finally did find the Russian propaganda on its platform, the discovery set off a crisis, a scramble, and a great deal of confusion. First, due to a miscalculation, word initially spread through the company that the Russian group had spent millions of dollars on ads, when the actual total was in the low six figures. Once that mistake was resolved, a disagreement broke out over how much to disclose, and to whom. The company could liberate the data about the ads to the public, release everything to Congress, or release nothing. Much of the arguing hinged on questions of user privacy. Members of the security team worried that the legal process involved in handing over private user data, even if it belonged to a Russian troll farm, would open the door for governments to confiscate data from other Facebook consumers later on. “There was a real debate internally, ” says one executive. “Should we just say’ Fuck it’ and not obsess? ” But eventually the company decided it would be crazy to throw legal caution to the wind “just because Rachel Maddow wanted us to.”
Ultimately, a blog post appeared under Stamos’ name in early September announcing that, as far as the company could tell, the Russians had paid Facebook $ 100,000 for approximately 3,000 ads aimed at influencing American politics around the time of the 2016 election. Every sentence in the post seems to downplay the substance of these new revelations: The number of ads was small, the expense was small. And Facebook wasn’t going to release them. The public wouldn’t know what they looked like or what they were really aimed at doing.
This didn’t sit at all well with DiResta. She had long felt that Facebook was insufficiently forthcoming, and now it seemed to be flat-out stonewalling. “That was when it ran from incompetence to malice, ” she says. A couple of weeks later, while awaiting at a Walgreens to pick up a prescription for one of her children, she got a call from a researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism named Jonathan Albright. He had been mapping ecosystems of misinformation since such elections, and he had some excellent news. “I discovered this thing, ” he said. Albright had started digging into CrowdTangle, one of the analytics platforms that Facebook utilizes. And he had discovered that the data from six of the accounts Facebook had shut down were still there, frozen in a state of suspended animation. There were the posts pushing for Texas secession and playing on racial distaste. And then there were political posts, like one that referred to Clinton as “that murderous anti-American traitor Killary.” Right before the election, the Blacktivist account urged its supporters to stay away from Clinton and instead be voting in favour of Jill Stein. Albright downloaded the most recent 500 posts from each of the six groups. He reported that, in total, their posts had been shared more than 340 million times.
To McNamee, the way the Russians applied the platform was neither a astonish nor an anomaly. “They find 100 or 1,000 people who are angry and afraid and then apply Facebook’s tools to advertise to get people into groups, ” he says. “That’s exactly how Facebook was designed to be used.”
McNamee and Harris had first traveled to DC for a period in July to meet with members of Congress. Then, in September, they were joined by DiResta and began spending all their free time counseling senators, representatives, and members of their staffs. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were about to hold hearings on Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the US election, and McNamee, Harris, and DiResta were helping them prepare. One of the early questions they weighed in on was the matter of who should be summoned to witnes. Harris recommended that the CEOs of the big tech companies be called in, to create a dramatic scene in which they all stood in a neat row swearing an oath with their right hands in the air, approximately the way tobacco executives had been forced to do a generation earlier. Ultimately, though, it was determined that the general counsels of the three companies–Facebook, Twitter, and Google–should head into the lion’s den.
And so on November 1, Colin Stretch arrived from Facebook to be pummeled. During the hearings themselves, DiResta was sitting on her bed in San Francisco, watching them with her headphones on, trying not to wake up her small children. She listened to the back-and-forth in Washington while chatting on Slack with other security researchers. She watched as Marco Rubio smartly asked whether Facebook even had a policy forbidding foreign governments from running an influence campaign through the platform. The answer was no. Rhode Island senator Jack Reed then asked whether Facebook felt their duties to separately notify all the users who had ensure Russian ads that “theyve been” deceived. The answer again was no. But perhaps the most menacing statement received from Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from Facebook’s home state. “You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it, ” she said. “Or we will.”
After the hearings, yet another dam seemed to break, and former Facebook executives started to go public with their criticisms of the company too. On November 8, billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker, Facebook’s first chairwoman, said he now regretted pushing Facebook so hard on “the worlds”. “I don’t know if I truly understood the consequences of what I was saying, ” h