Everything Facebook

Ratan Varghese - 3B Computer
Posted on: November 14, 2019

Facebook. It’s the social network with more users than any nation, and the company with more controversies than most politicians other than Trump. Keeping track of all the frustrating things Facebook does is exhausting, so we at the Iron Warrior have read about them so you don’t have to. Now, without further ado, a summary of Facebook-specific controversies and PR gaffes from 1 September to 8 November 2019.

Right around the middle of September, the Republic of Facebook announced that it was creating it’s own “Supreme Court”. It’s actually called the “Oversight Board”, and it is ostensibly an independent organisation which will simply be contracted by Facebook. Its role is to make decisions about allowing and removing content on Facebook. Exactly how a panel of 11 judges will manage the tasks previously handled by tens of thousands of underpaid content moderators might seem unclear. The actual role of the panel is just to adjudicate on a small subset of contentious content.
A little later in September, Facebook withdrew tens of thousands apps from using Facebook’s API for inappropriately sharing data, making users’ data available without protecting their identities, and violating Facebook terms of service. Among the removed apps was myPersonality, which shared a bunch of data with companies and researchers but refused to participate in an audit. Facebook also sued the oddly named LionMobi and JediMobi for using Facebook to spread phone malware.
On 23 September, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Snap, the company behind SnapChat, had prepared a dossier on Facebook’s aggressive and possibly anti-competitive tactics. This file, known as “Project Voldemort”, described how Facebook discouraged social media influencers from mentioning SnapChat on their Instagram pages. Instagram, by the way, has been owned by Facebook since 2012. Additional behaviour documented in Project Voldemort included preventing content from SnapChat from trending on Instagram and cloning SnapChat’s features into various Facebook-owned apps.
That same week, Facebook’s VP of Communications Nick Clegg confirmed that speech from politicians was officially exempt from Facebook’s fact-checking and decency standards. This is because of a “newsworthiness” rule instituted in late October 2016. Back in 2016, some Facebook employees were opposed to hosting Donald Trump’s demand for a Muslim travel ban. However Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Data Be Unto Him) personally decided that it would be inappropriate to intervene. However, there was one caveat: while regular posts by politicians were exempt from fact-checking, paid advertising still needed to follow Facebook’s Community Guidelines and advertising policies. That caveat would be swept away mere weeks later.
The Verge, which is basically the Buzzfeed’s nerdier and less-successful sibling, leaked a 2 hour Q&A session between Mark Zuckerberg (Data Be Unto Him) and his minions. Zuckerberg said that if Senator Elizabeth Warren became US President and tried to break up Facebook, he would “go to the mat and .. fight”. He also mentioned that Facebook created an app named Lasso to compete with TikTok. It would initially launch in Mexico, where TikTok isn’t yet available, and will be pushed worldwide when it’s considered good enough.
In early October, Facebook revealed a subtle change in its advertising policy which would allow politicians to lie in paid Facebook advertisements. The ad that triggered this revelation was made by the Trump campaign, and contained false accusations about former Vice President Joe Biden. The ad was so misleading that CNN refused to broadcast it, but Facebook hosted it. When the Biden campaign asked Facebook to take down the ads, the official response was that Facebook’s approach “is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression.” Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed, “This is a serious threat to our democracy. We need transparency and accountability from Facebook.”

A couple of days later, a number of payment companies including Stripe, Visa, and Mastercard all withdrew from the Libra Association on the same day. Libra is an upcoming Facebook-related crypto-currency, and the Libra Association is the governing body for the new currency. The companies that left did so on a Friday: the upcoming Monday was the Association’s first meeting where the payment companies would have been asked to make a binding commitment to Libra. These payment companies were probably also “encouraged”  to withdraw by a letter on 8 October from the US Senate which warned that, “If you take this on, you can expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related payment activities, but on all payment activities.”

 Around mid-October, Mark Zuckerberg (Data Be Unto Him) delivered a 35 minute speech at Georgetown University where he declared, “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression,” and, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” When asked whether allowing lies in political ads would favor conservative politicians, he said, “Right now, we’re doing a very good job of making everyone angry at us.”
Late October was a difficult time for the Book of Faces, starting with a Federal court refusing an appeal for a $35 billion lawsuit against Facebook. In the distant days of 2015, three Illinois residents sued Facebook for violating Illinois law. Basically, automatically tagging people’s faces in photos without their consent was deemed a violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Once it became a class-action lawsuit, it became clear that all 7 million Illinois Facebook users would be affected, and each knowing violation could cost Facebook $5000: this is where the $35 billion number comes from.
On 23 October, Mark Zuckerberg (Data Be Unto Him) testified before the House Financial Services Committee. This hearing was ostensibly about Libra, but the representatives grilled the CEO on various other issues: misunderstanding the problems that Libra is supposed to solve, the thousands of content moderation contractors who spend hours watching gruesome material all day and get “nine minutes to cry in a stairwell while somebody watches them”, discriminatory advertising, and the lies in political ads. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked, “Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?” Zuckerberg (Data Be Unto Him) provided this sage reply: “I think probably.”
In fact, this issue of lies in political ads was so controversial that hundreds of Facebook employees signed a letter proposing alternative ways to deal with political ads. Adriel Hampton registered as a candidate for the California gubernatorial race, and openly claimed his reason for doing so was to spread lies about Donald Trump and Zuckerberg (DATA BE UNTO HIM) in political ads. Twitter announced a ban on all political ads on this platform.
On 5 November, there was yet another announcement of a Facebook API flaw. This time the flaw revealed “group member information, like names and profile pictures in connection with group activity” to developers “for longer than we intended”. The apps affected were mainly for administering Facebook groups and sharing video to them.
This minor blip was followed days later by a massive bombshell: a public release of 7000 pages of leaked confidential files from Facebook. These files stemmed from a 2015 lawsuit between Facebook and a now defunct company called Six4Three. After being told by a California court not to release the files, a Six4Three executive visited a member of the UK Parliament, “panicked”, and provided the British with Facebook’s confidential data. Bits and pieces of these files have been leaked over the years. One of the new revelations from the files: Facebook prevented messaging apps such as WeChat, Line and Kakao from buying Facebook ads. In 2014, they prevented messaging startup MessageMe from having access to Facebook’s APIs. This will be helpful for the dozen or so antitrust investigations against the company.

A couple of days later, an anonymous blog described racist incidents at Facebook against black, Hispanic and female Asian employees. The blog claimed that these incidents have gotten worse since 2018. Facebook publicly apologised to its employees. In the words of Bertie Thomson, Facebook’s VP of corporate communications: “No one at Facebook, or anywhere, should have to put up with this behaviour.”

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