Facebook's Latest Scandals: The Banality Of Hubris; The Messiness Of Humanity

from the it's-not-evil,-it's-not-incompetent dept

Over the last few weeks, the WSJ has run a series of posts generally called “The Facebook Files,” which have exposed a variety of internal documents from Facebook that are somewhat embarrassing. I do think some of the reporting is overblown — and, in rather typical fashion regarding the big news publications and their reporting on Facebook, presents everything in the worst possible light. For example, the report on how internal research showed that Instagram made teen girls feel bad about themselves downplays that the data actually shows a significantly higher percentage of teens indicated that Instagram made them feel better:

But, of course, the WSJ’s headline presents it very differently:

None of this is to say that this is okay, or that Facebook shouldn’t be trying to figure out ways to minimize people using the sites being made to feel worse about themselves. But the reporting decisions here do raise some questions.

Another one of the articles highlights how Facebook has different rules for different users with regards to content moderation. And, again, on a first pass this sounds really damning:

The program, known as ?cross check? or ?XCheck,? was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company?s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are ?whitelisted??rendered immune from enforcement actions?while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

The report notes that nearly 6 million people are on that list (including, somewhat ironically, some high profile conservatives who have whined about how the site’s policies are biased against them). There’s simply no way this looks good — as insiders at Facebook readily admitted in internal documents. But, rather than being particularly nefarious, there are some pretty understandable reasons why this might have come about. As early Facebook content policy guy, Dave Willner, explained on Twitter, such systems are pretty common and “they get proposed spontaneously as a way of controlling the chaos that occurs when moderation affects high-profile or influential accounts.”

Another way to think about this is that — as I’ve said often — one of the trickiest parts of content moderation is understanding the wider context of any individual piece of content. This is way more difficult than most people realize. But context actually matters and looking at an individual piece of content outside of the context in which it was created gives you a misleading picture of the intent and impact of that content. And the idea of a sort of “be more careful with these accounts” list is a very inexact, and very messy, but is also a very quick and easy way of adding a contextual layer. It is basically initiated as a tool to say “hey, be careful with these accounts, because making a mistake with them has extra consequences.” But, over time, because of human nature, it evolves into “these accounts are protected.”

This isn’t a defense of the list. As Robyn Caplan and Tarleton Gillespie rightly note in the Washington Post, no matter what the reasons for the list, any sort of setup that is (1) not transparent, and (2) seen to lead to unequal treatment very naturally breeds suspicion and distrust.

In the days since the Facebook Files came out I’ve been having a few conversations with people about the write-ups and what it all means. There is general agreement that none of this makes Facebook look good. And it shouldn’t. There’s really nothing in all of this that’s good for Facebook. A few of the discussions, though, jumped to the argument that Facebook’s executive team is “evil.” A lesser version of this is that they’re totally incompetent. I don’t think either is quite true. Thinking it through, I think Facebook’s executive team (1) is in deeper than they realize, and (2) falsely thinks it has a better handle on things than it really does.

This is an issue that is all too common, especially in the internet world, where there’s a kind of myth around “visionary” founders. And that’s certainly been applied to pretty much every successful internet founder. Indeed, recent research throws some cold water on the idea of brilliant founders leading to big breakthroughs, and suggests more that successful companies are about being in the right place at the right time with minimally competent leaders to keep everything from going off the rails.

This is (quite obviously) from the outside looking in, but my impression of much of Facebook leadership is that they’ve bought a bit too much into the myth of their own brilliance, and their own ability to work their way through challenges — at the size and scale of an operation that isn’t just providing a service to basically a third of the globe, but which is also seeking to get those people to interact with one another. Nearly all of human history is about our general failures to get along with one another, and many of the problems facing Facebook are also of that very nature.

There is something of an open question about which of these problems are merely revealed or exposed due to Facebook, which are exacerbated by Facebook, and which are actually decreased by Facebook. It seems likely that all three of these forces are at play, and there is no one who has a full grasp on how to deal with the problems that are a part of human nature — or how to try to minimize humanity’s worst impulses across the globe. I don’t think Facebook has the answers, but sometimes I fear that some of the leaders at the company think that they do — or that they can outthink the world in how they approach these problems.

The issues, which become clear in all of this reporting, are not of a company that is nefariously run by evil geniuses toying with people’s minds (as some would have you believe). Nor is it incompetent buffoons careening human society into a ditch under a billboard screaming “MOAR ENGAGEMENT! MOAR CLICKS!” It seems pretty clear that they are decently smart, and decently competent people… who have ended up in an impossible situation and don’t recognize that they can’t solve it all alone.

Over and over again, this recognition seems to explain actions that might otherwise be incomprehensible. So many of the damning reports from the Facebook files could be evidence of evilness or incompetence — or they could be evidence of a group of executives who are in way too deep, but believe that they really have a handle on things that they not only don’t, but simply can’t due to the nature of humanity itself.

Facebook and Instagram were never going to cure depression, or keep teen girls from feeling bad about themselves. And, hell, to give the company a tiny bit of credit (don’t worry, I’ll take it away in a moment), the very fact that they did this research in the first place and realized how shitty some people feel on the site is a step that many, many companies never take. On the flip side, how they actually handled this is a part of the problem. As Will Oremus points out at the Washington Post, the real issue here is in the burying of the findings, not necessarily in the findings themselves.

And, again viewed through the prism of a hubristic “we can fix this, because we’re brilliant!” mentality, you can see how that happens. There’s a correct realization that this report will look bad — so it can’t be talked about publicly, because Facebook seems to have an inferiority complex about ever looking bad. But the general belief seems to be that if they just keep working on it, and just make the latest change to the UI or the algorithm, maybe, just maybe, they can “show” that they’ve somehow improved humanity. It’s a belief in themselves and their ability that simply isn’t realistic. But it does explain how the company handles nearly all of these scandals.

One thing I’ve grown to appreciate as I’ve gotten older is how much more complex the world is than it seems at times. More and more often, I’ve realized how the complex interplay of different variables means that nobody understands anything perfectly. There’s always another variable (or several) missing. I’m realizing that I am (increasingly) valuing input from a larger and more diverse set of sounding boards that can point out the giant thing that I’m missing in trying to understand complex topics. But it also makes me that much more skeptical of those who act as though they have figured it all out.

I don’t think the Facebook Files show a company that is evil or incompetent. It seems to show a company that is in way too deep, but still thinks it can totally get things back under control.

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Comments on “Facebook's Latest Scandals: The Banality Of Hubris; The Messiness Of Humanity”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"Nor is it incompetent buffoons careening human society into a ditch under a billboard"
Because Congress has that job.

1 in 5 girls feel worse… but only because of Instagram.
Advertising had no role in this, parents pushing their faded dreams on their children, parents pushing sports dreams on children, society demanding size 0 on runways… yep no role in this at all.
Instagram did it all on its own.

Maybe its not insta that’s toxic, maybe its the fact that image matters more than anything else?

You might be eating ramen brickmeal 5 times a week, but you had awesome pics on insta so obviously your life is awesome.

We make stupid people famous, then are shocked children emulate the stupid.

Perhaps if these 1 in 5 girls had parents that explained to their kids that pics on Insta sometimes take 100 shots to get just right, that many are retouched, that the image you see isn’t actually reality but someone showing off a fantasy that they themselves might not even be living really.

Instead we hand kids phones worth more than the people who assemble them can even imagine having, turn them loose on the internet, and expect that someone is gonna parent the kid for them. There ain’t a fucking app for that idiots.

I recall there was a bunch of outrage from parents pissed off at Lil Nas X because his new song was rougher than Old Town Road.
"I literally sing about lean & adultery in old town road. u decided to let your child listen. blame yourself."

"He previously responded to someone else who accused him of "targeting kids." Lil Nas X responded, "there was no system involved. i made the decision to create the music video. i am an adult. i am not gonna spend my entire career trying to cater to your children. that is your job."

Its trendy to blame things on the internet, but its really unpopular to suggest the problem is society itself.
Press a button, expect that some corporation is going to raise your child with the morals you pretend to live by & then meltdown when your kid turns out like you.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Snapchat made my kid speed.
Rapper singing about lean made my kid overdose.
Apple should have stopped my child from texting and driving.
The clerk shouldn’t have sold my kid that game.
If Dodge hadn’t built the Charger the robbers would never have gotten away.

Its not the platform, its not the tool, its the complete failure of society to take the time to explain that behind every insta post is 500 takes & 3 hours of editing.
That teaching them carefully curated things aren’t reality.
Perhaps handing your kid $75 to get a game without setting the limits, was a bad idea.
I don’t have much love for the gun industry but people blaming mass shootings on the weapon rather than the mentally ill person & societies failure to have help available or to make seeking help socially acceptable.

We blame inanimate things that function without thought for making bad things happen, because accepting our role in screwing everything up is unacceptable.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Advertising had no role in this, parents pushing their faded dreams on their children, parents pushing sports dreams on children, society demanding size 0 on runways… yep no role in this at all.
Instagram did it all on its own.

If the study methodology was sound, other effects were controlled for. I don’t know how good it was, but in any event it certainly didn’t go from "1 in 5 teens feel bad about themselves" to "it must have been Instagram".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

There’s no context either. Some people should feel bad about themselves. How many of those are teens who come to realize that maybe they are assholes and that isn’t good? How many are the ones who have been influenced into thinking they just aren’t "good enough".

How much of this is actually any different than it ever was?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Just to back you up, this spring, I took a trip to the Canyons and red rocks of Utah & Nevada. We set out on a hike at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon wearing good hiking gear, shoes, etc, and went down just one hour of the Rim Trail.

There, one arrives at a scenic viewpoint, so naturally, we stopped for some photos and our packed lunch. My teen kids took the mandatory Instagram photos, but were competing for the best photo spots with two absolutely stunningly pretty 20-somethings, with Friday-night-clubbing makeup, wearing flowing sundresses and high heels. Remember, this is an hour hike down a steep canyon rim! Of course these girls didn’t hike there in the high heels, but they were walking around the uneven terrain wearing them now. My teens took a dozen pics or so, and came back to eat lunch.

By virtue of our lunch break, I was able to notice that the two formalwear ladies continued taking pictures the entire time, and were still taking them when we left the area about an hour after arriving. I imagine they had hundreds of photos each. Who knows how long they stayed before putting on some real shoes and hiking up the 2000 vertical feet.

Now, hundreds of photos – that takes time to select the best of the batch, edit, apply filters, so they were probably setting themselves up for an evening of work — all in a bid to "present" an illusion of effortless beauty "living the easy life" across America.

As much as I was struck by the fake nature of their story, I was also impressed by the work ethic. These were not amateurs, these were professionals doing a job. Much as this Techdirt blog was/is a news blog without the classical trappings of a WSJ, they are the modelling industry without an agency, photog, and magazine contract.

How could my teenagers photos ever compete without similar effort? Do they really want to? I’m glad they got to see one reality behind the images they see everyday.

Since then, damn the COVID, I spent some time in Paris, and now I watch out for similar "semi-pros" at other renown viewpoints, and sure enough, they’re present.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"How could my teenagers photos ever compete without similar effort? Do they really want to?"

The second question is the real question. If there’s any doubt, I’d say that no, they don’t really want to do that. Spending your life faking photos of things you haven’t really done in the way you’re pretending to, just to get attention from people you never met and who will never care about what you really do, is not a path you want to go down if you have self respect.

The real lesson here is that there’s different markets. Your kids weren’t "competing" for anything other than meaningless attention. There’s certainly going to be people on Instagram who don’t care about the clearly faked models, they care about the scenery and genuine achievements. Chase after those and people who care about the real experiences, don’t chase after some fleeting number one spot against people who can out-vapid you at every turn.

"These were not amateurs, these were professionals doing a job"

Yes, as in they’re probably being paid to do what they do by some means – which makes it even less healthy to try and compare your kids vacation photos to them directly.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The reason they do it is to get a following, so a marketer will take notice and pay them to promote sketchy crap to people following them thinking if I just use this I can be that too.

Your kids got to see the effort that went into getting the "perfect" picture. I’m sure they noticed they didn’t look like they were having much fun when the camera wasn’t snapping away. Meanwhile your kids got a couple cool snaps, then had lunch in a beautiful place, & got to enjoy themselves rather than worrying if they should take 50 more shots just to be sure.

One does wonder if you’ve ever had the not everything online is real conversation with your kids or did they figure it out on their own or a hybrid mix of it?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"How could my teenagers photos ever compete without similar effort? Do they really want to?"

A bit like asking whether you, as a casual weekend driver, could compete with the professional NASCAR driver just zooming down the street.

You were watching a Day At The Office. The ever-growing cadre of "small businesses" revolving around social media presentations.

These have always been there. The photographer or painter spending years working all day, every day, in the hopes of catching a break. The sole difference being that thanks to ad revenue todays hopefuls can often make a modest living out of what starts as a hobby. Although it has to be said, I doubt this business model is sustainable for very many.

Many are still called and few chosen. This remains true even today.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"A bit like asking whether you, as a casual weekend driver, could compete with the professional NASCAR driver just zooming down the street."

Not even that. Half the time it’s like asking if you want your daily drive to compete with the guy you saw speeding down the freeway in a Ferrari. Only to realise that if you really look into it, that guy only got to his destination 90 seconds before you did, spend triple what you did in fuel and he was only renting for the day, he couldn’t actually afford to own the car any more than you could.

Better to just get on with your life rather than spend it chasing a dream that not even the people who cause you to aspire to that impractical goal can achieve.

Anonymous Coward says:

the report on how internal research showed that Instagram made teen girls feel bad about themselves

I can’t view that page (paywall), but I wonder whether they made any attempt to find the root of the problem. Instagram lets them see how other people compare with expectations, but is it the source of those expectations? It used to be, and probably still is to some extent, that people would try to emulate celebrities and adult family members. And it was the division into male and female subgroups by parents and schools that probably determined which celebrities they’d pay attention to—in my experience, parents try to make their girls look "pretty" before the girls decide that’s important to themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Thinking it through, I think Facebook’s executive team (1) is in deeper than they realize, and (2) falsely thinks it has a better handle on things than it really does.

How you can type this with a straight face when people like Kaplan (I know his position is Vice President on Public Policy but he wields some ludicrous exec-like power) help tip the scales toward the right wing, and Peter Thiel is also still on that executive team? For real, these people are evil shitheads. The idea that this is all Facebook making mistakes and having a big ego is fucking absurd.

Ankit says:

I never comment on these things so apologies for anything I say wrong:

don’t recognize that they can’t solve it all alone

They know that and have been asking for regulation for a long time. (Of course it benefits them business wise too). The problem is the outlook that anything they do is criticized and they move from putting off one PR fire after another, and Congress, media, anyone who wants some attention criticizes them to do so. We havent moved an inch on regulation but every other person in public has ideas what Facebook is doing wrong. Except in most cases, no one knows what the right thing is.

In WSJ articles – after they released all the pdfs – five out of six reports are from User Experience Researchers (and teams) pretty clearly looking to build the next gamechanging thing inside facebook. Like in every big tech company, they are trying hard to build a case, get the approval of the executive team, sometimes based on talking to just 40 people, and build the next popular feature on Instagram or Facebook. Researcher word outside of tech has a very different mental image. Surprisingly very few people drew this distinction. Calling that research to the level of what happens at universities is definitively wrong.

Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt, PhD says:

Corporational Determinism & Technological Solutionism

Mike, what you’re describing can also be referred to as "Corporational Determinism."
This discursive genre considers "digital media corporations as the main or the only agency informing broader societal change."

Tech platforms’ CEOs tend to be at the forefront of this discourse.

(you can read this article to find out more:

There’s also a widespread belief that technology is able to solve societal problems – "Technological Solutionism."
Both are (years-long) Silicon Valley ideologies.

So, I think they can help explain why Facebook "still thinks it can totally get things back under control."

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