Facebook goes on the offensive against critical reporting

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and facing widespread criticism that it had helped to destabilize the process by enabling Russian trolls and spreading disinformation, Facebook seemed to strike an apologetic tone. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, occasionally seemed defensive in his subsequent testimony before Congress, but the general sense was that he and the company were sorry for playing a role in those events, and were trying to do better. More recently, however, Facebook appears to be taking a much more aggressive approach to criticism, if the company’s response to recent reporting is any indication.

After a series of Wall Street Journal articles last week revealed how Facebook has a special program that allows celebrities to get around the platform’s rules of behavior, and has ignored the advice of its own researchers in its drive for growth at both Facebook and Instagram, the company responded with a lengthy blog post written by Nicholas Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs and a former deputy prime minister in the UK. Clegg wrote that the Journal stories “contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.” The central allegation in the series—that the company conducts research, and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient—is, Clegg wrote, “just plain false.”

In the past, Zuckerberg might have responded to such critical reporting by writing his own blog post explaining the company’s behavior—as he did when Facebook said it was moving discussions on the platform toward private groups and encrypted messaging, or to describe his commitment to free speech, or to discuss the decision to permanently block Donald Trump from the platform. In this case, Facebook decided to expand on Clegg’s argument in a separate post, but the post was not signed by anyone. In it, the company tried to highlight some of the positive work it has done on disinformation and abuse, touting a few numbers to indicate its priorities: 40,000 people working on safety and security, and more than $13 billion invested in protecting users. (A former Facebook executive pointed out that the latter number represents about four percent of the company’s revenue.)

According to reporting from The Information and others, Zuckerberg has recently made a concerted effort to stay out of the line of fire when it comes to critical coverage, and instead has focused on promoting himself as a fun-loving guy who just enjoys running his trillion-dollar company and having a good time with his friends. The Times reports that the company is also trying to sway public opinion towards Facebook by stuffing positive stories into users’ news feeds as part of something called Project Amplify. 

In another sign of its new, aggressive approach to criticism, a spokesman took issue with the Times story on Twitter, accusing reporter Ryan Mac (who co-wrote the piece with Sheera Frenkel) of inventing a meeting that never occurred, and describing the project inaccurately to make the company look bad. The spokesman said that the project was not unusual at all, but was a “test for an informational unit clearly marked as coming from Facebook,” and that it was no different from the kinds of self-promotional programs that other technology and consumer products companies engage in. Shira Ovide of the Times noted that, while other companies might do similar things, “Coke and Spotify do not control the levers to one of the most powerful information distribution systems in the world.” 

Zuckerberg’s only public response so far, to either the Journal series or the Times story, is a comment on his Facebook page about how the Times originally described him as riding an electric surfboard in a previous post. What he was really doing, he said, was riding a hydrofoil “that I’m pumping with my own legs.” A commenter asked, “Are we going to sue them?” Zuckerberg replied that the Times description was defamatory, although it’s not clear whether this was meant as a joke. The Times has since modified its description of the surfboard.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Here’s more on Facebook:

  • Fairness: The Oversight Board, a semi-independent body that was created by Facebook to adjudicate disputes about content removals on the platform—and, theoretically, has the ability to tell the social network what to do—has asked the company for an explanation of its XCheck (pronounced “cross check”) program. As reported by the Journal, the program allows influencers and celebrities to avoid repercussions for breaking the platform’s rules. Facebook must “commit to transparency” and to treating all users fairly, the Oversight Board said.
  • Scams: An investigative report from ProPublica says that Facebook’s Marketplace online classified business is a financial success, with more than one billion users a month, but that it is not nearly as safe for buyers and sellers as the company has claimed. “Facebook says it protects users through a mix of automated systems and human reviews. But a ProPublica investigation based on internal corporate documents, interviews and law enforcement records reveals how those safeguards fail to protect buyers and sellers from scam listings, fake accounts and violent crime.”
  • Apple: Facebook said Wednesday that changes to Apple’s new privacy terms will continue to cause problems for its advertising business in the third quarter, Axios reported. “The update signals to investors that the company is seeing numbers in the current quarter that reinforce previous warnings about impact from Apple’s changes,” the report says, adding, “The admission is likely to intensify an ongoing spat between Facebook and Apple. Facebook has been saying for months that Apple’s tracking changes are not about privacy, but rather a move to assert dominance.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • According to a report from The Information, sports publisher The Athletic has hired an investment bank to try to find a buyer for the company and hopes to be acquired for at least $750 million. Earlier reports said The Athletic held talks about a potential acquisition with both Axios (which itself had acquisition talks with German media company Axel Springer) and with the New York Times, but both sets of talks ultimately fell through. The Information report also said that The Athletic might decide to raise more venture capital rather than be acquired.
  • The Markup says that research done as part of its Citizen Browser project, in partnership with Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, shows that content posted on Facebook by the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland party in that country has had three times as much reach as content from other political parties ahead of an election to replace Angela Merkel, Germany’s long-serving chancellor, later this month. The project collects data from a panel of Facebook users who agree to install software that will monitor their Facebook feeds.
  • Following the leak of details from a company-wide meeting at Apple, Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, told employees in an internal memo that those who leak information to the press about the company’s affairs “do not belong at Apple.” That memo was also promptly leaked, as reported by The Verge. Cook told staff that the company is doing “everything in our power to identify those who leaked” information about the meeting. “We do not tolerate disclosures of confidential information, whether it’s product IP or the details of a confidential meeting,” he wrote.
  • Michael Azerrad, author of a book about the late rock musician Kurt Cobain, writes in a piece for the New Yorker about his own complicity in creating the legend of Nirvana. “Kurt, being a student of rock history, knew that the story of a rock band is essentially a legend—in the sense that there’s some wiggle room in the truth as long as it serves the over-all myth,” he writes. “Sometimes journalists play along because they’re naïve, lazy, or overworked, or they want to be in on the game because it makes for sensational copy. Whatever the reason, it works to the artist’s advantage.”
  • The former head of Ebony magazine, who was removed from his position last year, is among a group of people charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with raising money for marijuana businesses but illegally using the cash for other things — including keeping the magazine afloat, according to a report by CBS Marketwatch. “Willard Jackson, 57, is accused of taking part in a scheme that crowdfunded nearly $2 million for a series of marijuana-related real estate ventures”—money that the SEC charges allege the principals kept for themselves.
  • For CJR, Sara Sheridan interviews Christopher Mergerson, a fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who has been studying how media outlets in the South conducted their coverage of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. As large legacy publications such as Gannett and the Los Angeles Times have “recently undergone internal soul-searching and reckonings with their histories of poor coverage of communities of color,” as Mergerson puts it, his research “offers a sense of how the news can be better shaped to foster trust, diversity and inclusion.”
  • Phones sold in Europe by Chinese giant Xiaomi have the built-in ability to detect and censor terms such as “free Tibet,” “long live Taiwan independence,” or “democracy movement,” according to cybersecurity researchers who work for the government in Lithuania. The capability in one of Xiaomi’s phones is normally turned off for sale in the European Union region, the researchers say, but it can be turned on remotely at any time. “Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible,” the head of the country’s defence ministry told reporters during a press briefing.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.