Facebook Papers: Profit motive tied to keeping users engaged

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

In 2017, months before the General Election, Facebook rolled out a tool to help Kenyan users spot fake news ahead of a hotly contested presidential election that saw supporters of rival candidates trade bitter words online.

As Kenyans inch closer to another election next year, new documents, The Facebook Papers, are bringing more clarity to the social media giant’s problems, reinforcing a whistleblower’s claim that the platform profited from the spread of false information and relies on algorithms that push fake news to the masses.

The latest leak throws a fresh spotlight on the company’s role in manipulating elections, after it was cited as having shared data with defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to change people’s behaviour, including that of Kenyan voters.

For months, Facebook has been shaken by a steady leak of documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, beginning in The Wall Street Journal and spreading to government officials and nearly any new outlet with an interest in the company.

Now, those documents are becoming more public, giving readers the most sweeping look at the operations of Facebook anyone not directly involved with the company has ever had.

CNN and 16 other news outlets obtained a trove of documents that provide new details about how Facebook allowed misinformation to be pushed before the 2020 US presidential election and may have helped spark the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Profit motive

The papers show that the profit motive is directly tied to keeping people engaged on its site, even when the content is dangerous.

Facebook has taken a lot of criticism for its handling of Covid-19 misinformation, including from President Joe Biden, who accused the platform of “killing people” by letting anti-vaxx sentiment run amok.

The Verge reports that the leaks show just how chaotic the efforts were inside the company to manage vaccine misinformation. One document dated March 2021 shows an employee raising the alarm about how unprepared the platform was.

“Vaccine hesitancy in comments is rampant,” the memo reads. “Our ability to detect vaccine-hesitant comments is bad in English, and basically non-existent elsewhere. We need policy guidelines specifically aimed at vaccine hesitancy in comments.”

There is no doubt that the social media giant used its algorithms to send misleading health information to 3.8 billion users. This also affected the more than seven million Kenyans who have a profile on the social platform, leading them to make dangerous decisions on the coronavirus, with some led to believe that the virus does not exist.

Credible medical information

Many Facebook users had followed advice resembling credible medical information — such as eating large amounts of garlic or ingesting large quantities of vitamins — as a way of preventing inf At the onset of the pandemic, Kenya’s Health ministry warned the public against sharing unverifiable information online. It later had to clarify to the public that whereas a concoction of lemon, ginger and honey was good for the body, it was not an actual cure for Covid-19.

The remarks were made by Health Director-General Patrick Amoth after a few prominent personalities who had Covid-19 said the concoction had helped them recover.

Facebook, which has in the past five months held webinars on how it is helping online communities find credible health information, had to defend itself against the report, saying it also wanted to limit misinformation.

“Thanks to our global network of fact-checkers, from April to June, we applied warning labels to 98 million pieces of Covid-19 misinformation and removed seven million pieces of content that could lead to imminent harm,” it said in a statement.

Despite its initiatives of erasing fake content, the findings of the online activist network Avaaz suggested that only 16 per cent of the health disinformation it found on Facebook warned users against it.

On Monday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off Facebook’s quarterly earnings call by addressing the latest wave of coverage.

“Good-faith criticism helps us get better, but my view is that we are seeing a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” he said. “The reality is that we have an open culture that encourages discussion and research on our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific just to us.”

A report in Politico called the documents a “treasure trove for Washington's anti-trust fight” against the platform, revealing internal employee chats about Facebook’s global dominance.

Political violence

One report on Monday on the website The Verge plunged into the company’s own worries for its future.

But what is set to concern authorities around the world is Facebook’s role in the “perpetuating” political violence.

CNN reports that one of Ms Haugen's central allegations about the company focuses on the attack on the US Capitol.

In a Facebook disclosure to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, she alleges, the company “misled investors and the public about its role perpetuating misinformation and violent extremism relating to the 2020 election and January 6th insurrection”.

CNN reports that Facebook rejected the premise of Ms Haugen's conclusions and argued that she cherry-picked documents to present an unfair portrayal of the company.

“The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told CNN on Friday.

“We took steps to limit the content that sought to delegitimise the election, including labelling candidates' posts with the latest vote count after Mr (Donald) Trump prematurely declared victory, pausing new political advertising and removing the original #StopTheSteal Group in November."

The analysis found that the policies and procedures Facebook had in place were simply not up to the task of slowing, much less halting, the "meteoric" growth of Stop the Steal. For instance, those behind the analysis noted that Facebook treated each piece of content and person or group in Stop the Steal individually, rather than as part of a whole, with dire results.

A Washington Post story out on Monday said Mr Zuckerberg had personally signed off on a push from Vietnam's authoritarian government to limit the spread of so-called "anti-state" posts.