WIRED has published a report titled “Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook – And The World.” They document two years of upheaval at the tech giant and the progressive politics that drive the company’s management.
The article takes a look at the inner workings of Facebook during 2016 and 2017, including many of the events within the company related to the election of President Trump. What WIRED‘s investigation revealed is that many on the left were angry at Facebook during the 2016 election, accusing the social media platform of helping President Trump to get elected. Facebook was also targeted for the spread of “fake news” on their platform and urged to crack down on the issue somehow.
One of the first insights into Facebook’s inner workings comes from Benjamin Fearnow, a member of Facebook’s Trending Topics team, which was disbanded following coverage by Breitbart News. Fearnow leaked internal memo’s from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Gizmodo reporter Michael Nuñez.
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.
The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he noticed that he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his phone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recalls, 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 recounting of the meeting, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nuñez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t accessible to Facebook. He was fired. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it,” she instructed him.
WIRED spoke to 51 current and former Facebook employees about their experiences at the company. According to WIRED, “One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.” Many of the employees had similar stories about the culture at Facebook during the election cycle.
The stories 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 ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds. And—in the tale’s final chapters—of the company’s earnest attempt 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 way, in the rolling disaster that has enveloped Facebook since early 2016, Fearnow’s leaks probably ought to go down as the screenshots heard round the world.
The Facebook Trending Topics team was fired shortly after Breitbart News revealed the teams bias against conservatives. Facebook chose to replace the team with an algorithm that automatically listed popular news topics across the platform, the company has allegedly become extremely careful when dealing with conservative news sites over worries that they’ll be accused of censorship.
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? Those are hard questions, 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 time, 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 roughly resembling the Magna Carta; the company had never spoken before about how News Feed really worked. To outsiders, 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 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. It had burned its fingers once and didn’t want to do it again. And so a summer of deeply partisan rancor and calumny began with Facebook eager to stay out of the fray.
Old media executives Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson took issue with Facebook in a private meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, accusing the social media platform of posing an existential threat to journalism.
Rupert Murdoch broke the mood 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 giants 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 making 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 terms, Zuckerberg could expect News Corp executives to become much more public in their denunciations and much more open in their lobbying.
Apparently, accusations of “fake news” and the general negative influence of Facebook has reportedly resulted in Zuckerberg becoming extremely paranoid over the future of his social media platform and how it’s utilized.
“This whole year has massively changed his personal techno-optimism,” says an executive at the company. “It has made him much more paranoid about the ways that people could abuse the thing that he built.”
Read the full article in WIRED here.