On Wednesday, Facebook released Facing Facts, a short film featuring thoughtful Facebook employees, many of whom work on News Feed, talking about their jobs. According to the 11-minute film, Facebook is staffing up its “News Feed integrity team,” which works to fight misinformation and analyze the activity and trends within the News Feed. The video is more nuanced than Facebook’s recent apology ad, offering more detail (though not sufficiently in the weeds) about how the company is newly dedicated to admitting and correcting its wrongs.
The short film was part of Inside Feed, a communication channel that Facebook launched this week to explain more about the inner workings of the platform. The landing page hosts a handful of blog posts, including a Q&A with the new chief of News Feed, John Hegeman, some basics of the feed’s algorithm, and some of the actions Facebook takes to “clean up” News Feed. The novelty of the Inside Feed page and the polish of Facing Facts likely has a deliberate impact: They’re serious, well-packaged explanations of what Facebook does that don’t reveal much new information, but they communicate a new tone and public image for Facebook.
It’s likely no coincidence that CEO Mark Zuckerberg is missing from Facing Facts. In the immediate aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica story, Zuckerberg was at the forefront of the response. He willingly and enthusiastically participated in long media calls, appeared chastened and serious in front of Congress, and had an overly enthusiastic presentation onstage at Facebook’s F8 conference. But his efficacy has waned.
His reviews have been mixed: Some commentators lauded his efforts in front of Congress, but he was also mocked for everything from using a seat cushion to his non-answer answers. He was “ripped” by European Parliament during privacy hearings overseas. It’s noteworthy, then, after very publicly being the face to answer for his company’s failings, that he’s absent from Facing Facts; Zuckerberg remains controversial. He has some embarrassing public speaking engagements in his past, and his image is inextricably tied to Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network, which painted him as a whip-smart ego monster with antisocial tendencies. Even if Zuckerberg and Facebook chipped away at these notions to change his persona, the legacy remains.
Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri stars in the video instead. Early on, Mosseri talks about the scrutiny Facebook’s been under as a result of “us making mistakes along the way, both in what we built and how we explained what we did. Or maybe didn’t explain enough.” He is apologetic and sincere, rarely defensive, and sticks to discussing what Facebook got wrong and what it can improve. There’s no repetition of a mission statement, a talking point Zuckerberg has used.
Facebook is introducing key players who have been largely unknown to the public at large. They haven’t faced the same scrutiny nor have they been criticized in the same way. This is a tactic Facebook never really had to use before Cambridge Analytica. While Zuckerberg’s outreach efforts and communication style have improved over the years, the company was press-averse, and despite smaller crises never had a reason to handle media relations any other way. Facebook made announcements, but was rarely compelled to offer deep dives on pressing issues. The distrust that now exists is motivating Facebook to actively control and craft the narrative.
Facebook is clearly making efforts to combat the various agents using it to spread misinformation and undermine democracy. The platform has made design changes to include labels that will alert users to who paid for political ads (including on Instagram), as well as additional information about how much money a campaign dedicated to a given ad and who’s seeing it. All of this information will be catalogued, and clicking on the labels will lead users to the archive.
“That same archive can be reached by anyone in the world at facebook.com/politicalcontentads,” Facebook wrote in a press release. “People visiting the archive can see and search ads with political or issue content an advertiser has run in the US for up to seven years.” Facebook will also require those who want to place political ads to verify their identity and location.
Change at the tech giant is happening, incrementally. Facebook used to obscure how the company functioned and how the algorithms worked, but it is opening up out of necessity. Facebook obviously won’t divulge everything, and it still needs to fundamentally change how it works. As Mosseri says at the beginning on the film, Facebook’s mistakes were twofold: What it built and how it failed to explain what it built. Facebook is getting to the latter now, but we should remain cautious about the former, too. Facebook has long been engineered to suck in users, to encourage sharing, and to persuade consumers to use the network as a gateway to the rest of the internet. Reengineering Facebook so that users are less inclined to share and linger goes against its guiding principles of the last decade. It’s will be a difficult change to achieve, regardless of who leads the campaign.
Milestone of the Week
The best thing that happened in tech this week was the addition of an Instagram mute button. The feature hasn’t been rolled out, but soon users will be able to tap the “…” icon and hush a person so as to avoid incessant vacation/meme/food/fitspo photos without clicking “unfollow” and the end of IRL friendships. Every single internet platform should adopt some form of mute and help save users’ peace of mind.
Surprise of the Week
Twitter was once good! XOXO Fest cofounder and very good tweeter Andy Baio introduced a very simple, happy tool in the form of a Twitter time machine. Hitting the link in this tweet will send you to what Twitter would have looked like for you way back in 2008. There are all the people you follow now, tweeting about such innocent topics as food and the weather and test tweets. It was a very different time.
Clapback of the Week
Tesla CEO Elon Musk not only secured Grimes as Chaotic Neutral category by striking up a relationship with her, but he’s successfully made Twitter worse within the past week, tweeting his disdain for journalists and their inability to interpret his company’s stock struggles as something other than exactly that. Happily, Musk’s internet tantrum did not go unnoticed, and some clever Twitter users bought the url he’d tweeted about wanting for his new media credibility rating site and rerouted it to a story about a Tesla worker who had his life ruined by an on-site injury.