Written By Michael Ferrara
Created on 2023-11-15 19:44
Published on 2023-11-22 14:36
"Broken Code: Inside Facebook and the Fight to Expose Its Toxic Secrets" by Jeff Horwitz offers a compelling examination of Facebook's internal dynamics and the beliefs of its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, which significantly influenced the platform's policies and public stance. The book reveals several critical instances where Zuckerberg's beliefs diverged from reality, particularly in relation to the prevalence and impact of misinformation on Facebook. These instances highlight the challenges faced by the social media giant in balancing user preferences, the spread of false information, and the implications for democratic processes. Here are some key examples from the book:
Misinformation on Facebook: Zuckerberg believed that misinformation on Facebook was not a significant issue. He asserted that falsehoods were just a fraction of all news viewed on Facebook, and news itself was just a small part of the platform's overall content. He considered the idea that such a small amount of misinformation could influence the election to be illogical.
Impact of Fake News on Elections: Zuckerberg publicly declared the idea that fake news on Facebook could have influenced election results as "a crazy idea." He suggested that asserting the only reason someone voted a certain way was due to fake news showed a profound lack of empathy, adding that false information existed on both sides, implying it had no overall impact. This stance was challenged, especially with the emergence of groups like 'Stop the Steal', which Zuckerberg reluctantly agreed to delete under emergency circumstances but resisted setting a precedent for banning false election claims.
User Preferences and Misinformation: Zuckerberg believed that Facebook's feeds reflected user preferences, and he was therefore suspicious of efforts to interfere with them. This belief led him to rule out the approach of frequently and aggressively downranking sensationalism and engagement bait, as it would mean sacrificing precision for greater coverage. He operated under the assumption that people wanted misinformation, as indicated by metrics showing that users liked and shared stories with sensationalistic and misleading headlines, leading to his reluctance to frequently and aggressively downrank sensationalism and engagement bait. This approach overlooked the possibility that these metrics might not accurately reflect user preferences or the reality of the situation.
As we delve deeper into the narrative of Facebook's internal dynamics and leadership decisions, it becomes essential to explore the perspective and critique offered by Arturo Bejar, a significant figure in the company's history. Bejar's journey from a compassionate innovator to a critical observer of Facebook's policies sheds light on the complexities and challenges within the tech giant. His unique standpoint offers an invaluable insight into the discrepancies between Facebook's intentions and its real-world impact, particularly under the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg. Here's an overview of Bejar's career and his evolving views on Facebook's role in society:
Early Years and Education: Bejar's journey in tech began as a teenager in Mexico City, where he wrote computer games for himself. He had a chance introduction to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who later supported Bejar's education, paying for him to earn a computer science degree in London.
Career at Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg hired Bejar as a Facebook director of engineering in 2009. During his tenure at Facebook, Bejar created a team called Protect and Care, focusing on preventing bad online experiences, promoting civil interactions, and assisting users at risk of suicide. He left Facebook in 2015 to spend more time with his children during a personal transition.
Compassion Team and Return to Facebook: Bejar was known as Facebook’s original “Mr. Nice” and pioneered the company’s approach to improving user experience. His Compassion team was instrumental in this area. After a four-year break, he returned to Facebook in 2019, working as a consultant on Instagram’s Well-Being team, inspired by his daughter's experiences of abuse on the platform. This period marked a shift in his views, from optimism about tech's possibilities to a more critical perspective on Facebook's role and responsibilities.
Focus on User Experience and Platform Integrity: Bejar was dedicated to addressing Facebook’s blind spots in user experience. He emphasized the importance of understanding users' lived experiences rather than just focusing on officially rule-breaking content. His approach was to make user experience metrics a priority, highlighting the gap between Facebook’s enforcement efforts and the actual concerns of users.
Critique of Facebook's Approach: Bejar's second stint at Facebook revealed his disillusionment with the company's approach to free speech and platform integrity. He expressed concern that Zuckerberg and other executives didn't fully grasp their responsibility for the human experiences on their platforms. Bejar saw Facebook as having a duty to manage the impacts of its platforms on people's lives, a viewpoint that evolved from his earlier belief in the liberating power of unrestricted speech.
AI, as used by platforms like Facebook, plays a critical role in content moderation. However, its effectiveness is limited, particularly in non-English languages and in countries with multiple official languages. For instance, Facebook's AI classifiers for election-related content in Hindi and Bengali were underdeveloped and outdated as of 2021, and classifiers for most other Indian languages were nonexistent. This discrepancy in AI effectiveness across languages and regions means that the platform's content moderation is less efficient outside the United States, potentially impacting the quality of information available during elections.
Facebook has recognized the need to address the spread of misinformation and other exploitative content. It has implemented systems to detect and flag individual pieces of harmful content, similar to its system for blocking images of child sexual abuse. Additionally, Facebook has explored ways to suppress "trash content farms," which manipulate platform mechanics to gain undue attention. There was also an effort to encourage reputable publishers who invest in producing their own content. However, Facebook's principle of "Assuming Good Intent" for users and its internal struggles have historically made it challenging to address these issues effectively. The Civic Integrity team at Facebook, initially focused on enhancing democratic participation, later shifted its focus towards understanding and mitigating platform abuses that undermine democracy, like foreign troll farms and extremist groups exploiting Facebook's recommendation systems.
To better prepare for AI's role in future elections, it's crucial to enhance AI classifiers across diverse languages and regions to ensure equitable and effective content moderation. This includes developing and updating classifiers for languages spoken in countries with significant Facebook user bases. Big Tech companies should also balance growth aspirations with the ethical responsibility of preventing misinformation and harmful content. Improving the detection and suppression of exploitative content farms and extending more rigorous content quality standards are other key steps. Finally, maintaining a nonpartisan approach, especially in teams dealing with civic and political content, is essential to ensure fairness and trust in the platform's role in the democratic process.
"Broken Code: Inside Facebook and the Fight to Expose Its Toxic Secrets" paints a detailed picture of the internal and external pressures faced by one of the world's most influential social media platforms. The book not only explores the influence of Zuckerberg's beliefs and decisions but also examines the broader implications of Facebook's policies and actions on public discourse and democracy. It serves as a critical examination of the power and responsibility of tech giants in the digital age, highlighting the need for greater accountability and transparency in their operations.
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