Employee raises at Facebook depend on engagement, and newly leaked private Zuckerberg recordings show the Groups algorithm prioritizes enragement.  

The Verge’s latest bombshell Facebook exposé with leaked private audio of Mark Zuckerberg is 7,000 words long, takes about a half-hour to read, and features internal secret recordings of Zuck addressing the ways that Facebook has helped foment the violence we've seen around the country since the George Floyd killing in late May. But the long-form piece kicks off, rather amusingly, with an anecdote about how Facebook employees complained that they lost their on-site free food privileges during the pandemic stay-at-home period, and that actually amounts to a lot of money they now have to spend on food, they're realizing. Cue up the tiniest fiddle in the world!  

What that anecdote ignores is that thousands of Facebook “employees” are actually vastly lower-paid contractors who don’t get the same lavish perks or benefits. Still, The Verge’s deeply researched investigation covers an array of Facebook’s content moderation failures (plus some delicious palace intrigue and gossip) on a number of topics: Zuck’s cowardice when Trump posts incite violence, the virtual employee walkout over the platform’s increasingly conservative skew, and even Zuckerberg’s handling of his way-too-much-sunscreen paparazzi photos.

But the most harrowing detail comes near the end of the article, in an employee whistleblower complaint about the Facebook Groups algorithm. “Employees’ raises and promotions are closely tied to their ability to boost engagement within Facebook’s products,” The Verge notes.

In data terms, anti-vaxx groups and QAnon hysteria are going to get far better engagement than your average drag queen or 'Vote Yes on Proposition Z' groups. Moreover, the group recommendations tool prioritizes the angriest and most out-to-lunch groups, because those tend to get more clicks when they appear in the recommended field.

“They try to give you a mix of things you’re part of and not part of, but the aspect of the algorithm that recommends groups that are similar to the one that you’re part of are really dangerous,” an anonymous engineer told The Verge. “That’s where the bubble generation begins. A user enters one group, and Facebook essentially pigeonholes them into a lifestyle that they can never really get out of.”

The Verge presents this all as a conflict between Facebook employees’ liberal bias versus Facebook users’ older and more Republican bent. “The community we serve tends to be, on average, ideologically a little bit more conservative than our employee base,” Zuckerberg said on one leaked audio recording. “Maybe ‘a little’ is an understatement. … If we want to actually do a good job of serving people, [we have to take] into account that there are different views on different things, and that if someone disagrees with a view, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re hateful or have bad intent.”

But consider that Facebook may be making people more susceptible to looney tunes right-wing conspiracy theories and rage movements. We all know New Age spiritual-types who’ve been converted into militant COVID deniers, Burning Man bros who suddenly find Christ-like charm in meathead Trumper Joe Rogan, and suburban moms who suspect Joe Biden is harvesting mail-order child brides from Ukraine. One cannot discount the possibility that Facebook’s enormous reach is a heavy contributor to this, if not the primary cause.

The Verge describes this all as “Mark in the Middle,” or Zuckerberg trying to balance his left-wing workforce with his right-wing user base. That may be incorrect. Zuckerberg’s top conservative executives, right-wing ‘censorship’ Cassandras, and sweet Trump campaign ad money have likely made Zuckerberg far more fearful of conservative backlash than he ever would be of liberal backlash. So in that sense, Republicans are playing Mark Zuckerberg like he’s a banjo at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

Related: Facebook Algorithm Purposely Played Up Stories About Politics, Crime, and Tragedy [SFist]

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