Facebook hits back at WSJ for 'deliberate mischaracterisations' in investigative series

Facebook hits back at WSJ for 'deliberate mischaracterisations' in investigative series

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Facebook has hit back at the Wall Street Journal, claiming that its investigative series titled "The Facebook Files" have contained "deliberate mischaracterisations" of what the company is trying to do. Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of global affairs, said WSJ also "conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees".

The Facebook Files were written based on a review of internal Facebook documents by WSJ. According to the media outlet, these included research reports, online employee discussions and drafts of presentations to senior management. WSJ said that documents have shown time and again that Facebook's researchers pointed out the platform's ill effects and despite congressional hearings as well as Facebook's own pledges and media exposes, the company did not fix them.

The stories address how Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls and how the platform became an angry place despite Facebook's attempts to turn it into a healthier one. Employees were also reportedly warned of the potential damage inflicted. WSJ's investigation also examined how "millions of VIPs" are protected from Facebook's normal enforcement and are reportedly still posting material including harassment and incitement to violence that would usually result in sanctions.

In response, Clegg said at the heart of this series is an allegation that is just plain false: that Facebook conducts research and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company. He explained that this impugns the motives and hard work of thousands of researchers, policy experts and engineers at Facebook who strive to improve the quality of Facebook's products.

"It’s a claim which could only be made by cherry-picking selective quotes from individual pieces of leaked material in a way that presents complex and nuanced issues as if there is only ever one right answer," he said.

He added that Facebook understands the significant responsibility that comes with operating a global platform and it takes this seriously. "We fundamentally reject this mischaracterisation of our work and impugning of the company’s motives," Clegg said.

He explained that with any research, there will be ideas for improvement that are effective to pursue and ideas where the tradeoffs against other important considerations are worse than the proposed fix. The fact that not every idea that a researcher raises is acted upon does not mean Facebook teams are not continually considering a range of different improvements, Clegg said.

"At the same time, none of these issues can be solved by technology companies alone, which is why we work in close partnership with researchers, regulators, policymakers and others," he added.

Clegg also said that none of the collaborative work is helped by taking "a deliberately lop-sided view" of the wider facts. One example was WSJ's investigative article about vaccination which suggested that misinformation overwhelmed Facebook's COVID-19 vaccine response. According to Clegg, this ignores the most crucial fact that vaccine hesitancy among US users of Facebook dipped by approximately 50% since January.

The article also discussed how pro-vaccine posts are undermined by negative comments. To this point, Clegg said it "buries" a crucial point that health organisations are still posting because their own measurements show how their posts on our platforms effectively promote vaccines, despite negative comments.

"The truth is that research into the impact social media has on people is still relatively nascent and evolving, and social media itself is changing rapidly," he said. He also explained that each study has limitations and caveats so no single study will be conclusive. Instead, the industry needs to rely on growing multi-method research and expert input.

The reason Facebook conducted the research in the first place was to hold up a mirror to itself and ask the difficult questions about how people interact at scale with social media, Clegg explained. According to him, these are often complex issues where there are no easy answers to, "notwithstanding the wish to reduce them to an attention-grabbing newspaper headline". He added that the company will continue to invest research into those serious and compelx issues and continue to ask itself the hard questions.

Photo courtesy: 123RF

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