While Mark Zuckerberg was talking out one side of his mouth in January 2018 about encouraging more "meaningful interactions" with friends and family, Facebook was simultaneously tweaking its News Feed algorithm to display more posts on the topics of "politics, crime, or tragedy."
This is one of the revelations in a highly readable, broad-ranging, investigative long-read from Wired published on Tuesday, which looks at Facebook's "fresh hell" of the last 15 months from the perspective of 65 current and former employees.
Taken along with what's been a year-long onslaught of investigative pieces — mostly by the New York Times — that have blown multiple holes in the robo-friendly, making-the-world better veneer that Zuckerberg spent years polishing for the Facebook brand, Wired's latest piece doesn't contain a ton of surprises.
What it does share a wealth of, however, is insiders' perspectives on how the company dealt internally with each successive blow, and how employees were tasked with undertaking proclamations like the one Zuckerberg made over a year ago. That major change in Facebook algorithm, by the way, which also sought to rate media entities based on "trustworthiness," caused wide ripples of anxiety in a news media that was already too beholden to one social media company for traffic and eyeballs. (And a lot of good those algorithm changes did in terms of "trustworthiness": the top two publishers on Facebook as of August 2018 were still Fox News and its UK-based outrage-bait equivalent, LADbible.)
Let's just say that when you put engineers in charge of something as complicated as the news media, the results are less than nuanced.
Facebook’s product engineers got down to the precise, algorithmic business of implementing Zuckerberg’s vision. If you want to promote trustworthy news for billions of people, you first have to specify what is trustworthy and what is news. Facebook was having a hard time with both. To define trustworthiness, the company was testing how people responded to surveys about their impressions of different publishers. To define news, the engineers pulled a classification system left over from a previous project—one that pegged the category as stories involving “politics, crime, or tragedy.”
Facebook being an enormous company at this point, a thorough explanation about how this news shift was being algorithmically implemented was not broadly shared, even though employees tell Wired that it went through a series of approvals by senior managers.
As Wired reports, "When one Facebook executive learned about it recently in a briefing with a lower-level engineer, they say they 'nearly fell on the fucking floor.'"
The result, of course, is that news stories relating to science, technology, art, film, celebrities, and sports were downplayed in favor of stories that received more engagement, in social media parlance — the result, illustrated in the bar graph below, shows the huge shift in traffic referrals from Facebook, by subject matter, between 2017 and 2018. Clicks out to arts stories, for instance, went down 71% year over year, while stories about politics remained the top source of links — though referrals to political stores also went down by about a third.
The Wired piece is full of amusing zings and anecdotes related to Facebook's "annus horribilis," including the comparison of Facebook around December of last year to Monty Python’s Black Knight: "hacked down to a torso hopping on one leg but still filled with confidence."
Also, there are broad indictments of the company's grotesque naivete when it came to its own mission and practical functionality.
Sometimes Facebook makes the world more open and connected; sometimes it makes it more closed and disaffected. Despots and demagogues have proven to be just as adept at using Facebook as democrats and dreamers. Like the communications innovations before it—the printing press, the telephone, the internet itself—Facebook is a revolutionary tool. But human nature has stayed the same.
The company has publicly abandoned the now PR-damaging ethos of "Move fast and break things." But, it has most certainly played a role in kneecapping the media and cracking our brittle democracy.
And as Wired notes, the guest wi-fi password at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park is still "M0vefast."