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No more apologies: Inside Facebook’s push to defend its image

Mark Zuckerberg, FacebookCEO, signed a new initiative last month, codenamed Project Amplify.

The effort, launched in an internal meeting in January, had a specific goal: to use the Facebook news feed, the site’s most important digital real estate, to show people positive stories about the social network.

The idea was that promoting Facebook news – some of which was written by the company itself – would improve its image in the eyes of users, said three people familiar with the initiative. But the move was delicate because Facebook hadn’t previously positioned News Feed as a place to polish its own reputation. According to one participant, several leaders of the meeting were shocked by this proposal.

The Amplify project highlighted a number of decisions Facebook made this year to radically change its image. Since that January meeting, the company has embarked on a multi-stakeholder effort to change its narrative, distancing Zuckerberg from scandals, limiting outsider access to internal data, hiding potentially negative reports about its content, and increasing its own advertising to showcase its brand.

These moves represent a wide shift in strategy. For years, Facebook has faced crisis after crisis of privacy, misinformation and hate speech on its platform, publicly apologizing. Zuckerberg personally claimed responsibility for Russia’s interference with the site during the 2016 presidential election and spoke out loudly for free speech on the Internet. Facebook has also pledged transparency in its work.

But the drumbeat of criticism on issues as diverse as racist speech and vaccine misinformation continues. Disgruntled Facebook employees only heightened the furor by speaking out against their employer and leaking internal documents. Last week, The Wall Street Journal published articles based on such documents, which showed that Facebook is aware of the many harm it causes.

So Facebook executives, finding that their methods had done little to quell criticism or win over supporters, decided to go on the offensive earlier this year, said six current and former employees who declined to name them for fear of reprisals.

“They understand that no one else will come to their defense, so they have to do it and state it themselves,” said Katie Harbat, former director of public policy at Facebook.

The changes affected Facebook executives in marketing, communications, politics, and integrity. Alex Schultz, a 14-year veteran of the company who was named chief marketing officer last year, also had a big impact on the image change, say five people who worked with him. But at least one of the decisions was made by Zuckerberg, and they were all approved by him, three people said.

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, denies the company has changed its approach.

“People deserve to know what steps we are taking to address the various challenges facing our company — and we are going to share these steps widely,” he said in a statement.

Over the years, Facebook executives have been annoyed that their company is getting more attention than Google and Twitter, according to current and former employees. They attributed this attention to Facebook being more vulnerable by apologizing and providing access to internal data, People said.

So in January, the leaders held a virtual meeting and discussed the idea of ​​more aggressive defenses, one participant said. The group discussed using the news feed to promote positive news about the company, as well as placing ads with links to positive articles about Facebook. They also discussed how to define a story in support of Facebook, according to two participants.

That same month, a public relations group discussed ways to allow management to be less conciliatory in responding to crises and decided there would be fewer apologies, said two people familiar with the plan.

People said that Zuckerberg, who was entwined with political issues including the 2020 election, also wanted to transform himself into an innovator. In January, they said, the public relations team circulated a document with a strategy to distance Zuckerberg from scandals, in part by focusing his Facebook posts and media appearances on new products.

The tech news website has previously reported on this document.

The impact was immediate. On January 11, Sherrill Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, not Zuckerberg, told Reuters that the storming of the US Capitol a week earlier had nothing to do with Facebook. In July, when President Joe Biden announced that the social network was “killing people” by spreading COVID-19 misinformation, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s VP of Integrity, contested the testimonial on the blog and pointed out that the White House missed coronavirus goals of vaccination.

“Facebook is not the reason this goal was conceded,” Rosen wrote.

Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook and Instagram accounts soon changed. Rather than discussing corporate divisions, Zuckerberg’s posts recently featured a video of him crossing a lake with an American flag, reporting on new virtual reality and hardware devices. (After this article, which described Zuckerberg as riding an electric surfboard, was published, he wrote on Facebook that it is actually “a hydrofoil that I swing with my own feet.”)

Facebook also began to reduce the availability of data that allowed scientists and journalists to study how the platform worked. In April, the company informed its team behind CrowdTangle, a tool that provides data on the engagement and popularity of Facebook posts, that it is disintegrating. Although the tool still exists, the people who worked with it have been transferred to other teams.

Part of the impetus came from Schultz, who became disenchanted with news reports that used CrowdTangle data to show that Facebook was spreading misinformation, two people in the discussions said.

For the scientists who relied on the CrowdTangle, it was a blow. Cameron Hickey, a disinformation researcher at the National Citizenship Conference, a nonprofit dedicated to civic participation, said he was “particularly angry” because he felt the CrowdTangle team was being punished for giving an unfiltered view of Facebook engagement.

Schultz argued that Facebook should publish its own information about the most popular content on the site, and not provide access to tools like CrowdTangle, two people said. Therefore, in June, the company compiled a report on the most viewed Facebook posts in the first three months of 2021.

But Facebook hasn’t released the report. After the political communications group found that the most viewed link during this period was news with a headline stating that a doctor had died after being vaccinated against COVID-19, they feared the company would be punished for helping doubt about vaccination. to internal emails verified by The New York Times.

From the emails, the day before the report was due to be published, Schultz was part of a group that voted to put the document on hold. He later posted an internal post about his role on Facebook, which was reviewed by The Times, which said, “I do care about protecting the company’s reputation, but I also care deeply about rigor and transparency.”

Facebook has also worked to fix employee information leaks. In July, the public relations team closed comments on an internal forum that was used for company-wide announcements. “OUR ONE PLEASE: NO LEAK PLEASE,” reads the change notice.

At the same time, Facebook has stepped up its marketing. During the Olympic Games this summer, the company paid for TV spots with the slogan “We change the game when we find each other” to show how it contributes to the development of communities. Facebook spent a record $ 6.1 billion on marketing and sales in the first half of this year, more than 8% more than a year earlier, according to a recent earnings report.

A few weeks later, the company further limited the ability of scientists to conduct research when it disabled Facebook accounts and the pages of a group of researchers from New York University. The researchers created a feature for web browsers that allowed them to see user activity on Facebook, which 16,000 people agreed to use. The findings led to studies showing that misleading political ads flourished on Facebook during the 2020 elections and that users used right-wing disinformation more than many other types of content.

In a blog post, Facebook stated that NYU researchers violated user data collection guidelines, citing a privacy agreement that was originally negotiated with the FTC in 2012. The FTC later rebuked Facebook for enforcing its agreement, saying it was allowed forever. a study of faith in the public interest.

Laura Edelson, a lead researcher at New York University, said Facebook turned her off due to the negative attention her work received. “Some people on Facebook look at the impact of these transparency efforts and only see bad PR,” she said.

The episode got worse this month when Facebook told disinformation researchers that it had mistakenly provided incomplete data on user interactions and engagement for two years for their work.

“It’s impossible to imagine that much of modern life as it exists on Facebook cannot be analyzed by researchers,” said Nathaniel Persili, a law professor at Stanford University who is working on federal legislation to force the company to share data with scientists. …

In August, after Zuckerberg approved the Amplify project, the company tested the change in three US cities, two people with knowledge of the effort said. According to them, although the company previously used the news feed to promote its products and social goals, it did not use it to openly promote positive information about itself in the press.

After testing began, Facebook used a system known as Quick Promotes to post stories about people and organizations that used the social network to users’ news feeds, they said. Basically, people see posts with the Facebook logo that link to articles and websites published by the company, as well as from third-party local news sites. One article highlighted Facebook’s Latest Innovations for 2021 and outlined achieving “100% renewable energy for our global operations.”

“This is a test for an information block clearly marked as coming from Facebook,” Osborne said, adding that Project Amplify is “similar to the corporate responsibility initiatives that people see in other technologies and consumer products.”

Facebook’s rejection of unflattering revelations also continues, even without Zuckerberg. On Saturday, Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global communications, wrote a blog post denouncing the premise of The Journal’s investigation. He said the idea that Facebook executives repeatedly ignored warnings about problems was “just plain false.”

“These stories contain deliberate distortions of what we are trying to do,” Clegg said. He did not elaborate on what was the wrong characterization.



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