It looks as though the war on memes continues at Facebook. According to a new report from Bloomberg titled “How Facebook Fought Fake News About Facebook,” three former employees revealed the platform used secret programs code-named “Stormchaser” and “Night’s Watch” to track, debunk and remove viral posts, including a non-conspiracy theory joke about CEO Mark Zuckerberg being an alien.
Yes, really. Facebook, a monopolistic platform with 2.5 billion users and a 75% market share of all social media, is using its crackdowns against misinformation to coddle the fragile egos of its own top executives — even if that requires secretly tracking their users.
The report outlines how Facebook used its AI tools to carefully monitor posts on the platform pertaining to the company’s negative image, whether it was news, conspiracies, jokes or simple memes. The employees claim these programs, which allegedly listen to users through their phone’s microphone and surveil private IM apps such as WhatsApp and Messages, were specifically used to “snuff out” all discussions about Facebook.
“Topics ranged from bitter protests (the #deleteFB movement) to ludicrous jokes (that Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is an alien),” write Bloomberg journalists Mark Bergen and Kurt Wagner who verified their links to the platform. It must be stressed that while this absurdity is definitely a laughing matter, you can imagine the shocking insecurity behind real inconvenient truths if simple jokes about fake alien executives aren’t safe.
“In some cases,” the writers continue, citing several copy-and-paste hoaxes used throughout both the U.S. and Philippines, “the social network took active steps to snuff them out. Staff prepared messages debunking assertions about Facebook, then ran them in front of users who shared the content, according to documents viewed by Bloomberg News and four people familiar with the matter. They asked not to be identified discussing private initiatives.”
The sources also claim that since 2016, Facebook used multiple tools to manage the oh-so-serious reputation of both its platform and personnel. In the public space, Facebook has already spent $13 million in lobbying against government oversight following the events of the 2016 presidential election involving supposed Russian propaganda and data-leaks via Cambridge Analytica. Despite this deception, Facebook claims they’ll leave no stone unturned in the fight against misinformation. When it comes to simple memes, Facebook does stick to their words… though for no good reason, of course.
When sources allege the company was most concerned with the “fake news” about itself over other topics, it’s no stretch to imagine keeping the platform alive remains the top priority at all cost, no matter the tools or expenses necessary. The report also states that “Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have become so intertwined with the company’s image” that Facebook has no other choice than to “routinely collect public survey data to understand how the general public views them — data that shapes what the executives say and do publicly.”
From this, the petty overreach almost makes sense.
Facebook continues to spin a false narrative their company can self-regulate their faults. This approach, however, requires the appearance of genuine people seeking authentic redemption — a requirement rather lacking from Zuckerberg and his rumored race of weird robotic lizard people from Mars. If you’re reading this, Mark, I’m sorry to say the outright suppression of critiques of your weirdness is, by all accounts, absolutely weird.
Zuckerberg has yet to rectify his alien ways.
Even though the alien has no clothes, Facebook continues to deny these sources. “We didn’t use this internal tool to fight false news because that wasn’t what it was built for, and it wouldn’t have worked,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email. “The tool was built with simple technology that helped us detect posts about Facebook based on keywords, so we could consider whether to respond to product confusion on our own platform. Comparing the two is a false equivalence.”
Facebook, however, also claims it stopped using Stormchaser to respond to memes in mid-2018, a full two years after it was introduced, though failed to give a reason why it surveilled these memes in the first place. It’s almost as if the most powerful platform in the world, that wants to regulate fake news in its own time on its own terms, doesn’t want to admit its own actions. The internal sources claim the technology was used to fight information and still exists for much more serious means.
“The company continues to use polls to measure how its top leaders are perceived,” the journalists continues. “These surveys of public perception operate much like political campaigns, according to people familiar with the process. The data, which was collected quarterly at one point following the 2016 election, is used to determine where Zuckerberg and Sandberg have goodwill with Facebook’s users, and where they need improvement. In one presentation summarizing data on Zuckerberg from June 2017, the CEO was rated on personality attributes, including terms like ‘mature,’ ‘honest’ and ‘passionate.’ He scored highest on “innovative,” and lowest on “shares my values.” Zuckerberg was also charted against rival CEOs.”
Facebook’s “counter-programming messages,” run by the company’s own product marketing division, happened in real-time and were pushed under the veneer of posts deemed “quick promotions.” In one internal message cited by Bloomberg News, a Facebook staffer told their colleagues that certain QPs in the Philippines were reaching users at a “slow rate,” hitting only 20,000 of a targeted audience of 750,000, while another message details reformed QPs planned to air in the U.S. The topics at hand weren’t mentioned by Bloomberg specifically, though likely fall under those described above. In any case, the content being pushed doesn’t actually matter.
A monopoly force like Facebook has no right to peddle its own narratives about itself while also restricting others. It is a supposedly neutral public forum protected under 1996’s Communications Decency Act, a policy which dictates that computer platforms cannot be liable for content users post on their sites, such as porn or defamation. In court filings, Facebook even quoted the law saying providers of a “computer service” should not be “treated as the publisher” of information, especially from others, while at the same time, their own public statements indicate Facebook is a publisher allowed to make “editorial decisions,” which are protected by the first amendment. Facebook simply can’t have it both ways.
Chris Hughes, the former co-founder of Facebook, wrote a similar critique of the company’s contradictions in The New York Times. He observed that Zuckerberg wants the cake of “Facebook is just a ‘social utility,’ a neutral platform for people to communicate,” and yet also wants to eat it under the guise of being “entitled to First Amendment protection.” Hughes condemns Zuckerberg for refusing to break up his star child of social power, an all too powerful tool for propaganda, writing directly that “the government must hold Mark accountable” for his weird authoritarian ways. This mad gatekeeper problem, according to the Pew Research Center, effects at least two third of all U.S. adults (68%) who get their news on social media, the online space which is predominately owned by Facebook.
“An era of accountability for Facebook and other monopolies may be beginning,” Hughes concludes. “Collective anger is growing, and a new cohort of leaders has begun to emerge. On Capitol Hill, Representative David Cicilline has taken a special interest in checking the power of monopolies, and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ted Cruz have joined Senator Warren in calling for more oversight. Economists like Jason Furman, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, are speaking out about monopolies, and a host of legal scholars like Lina Khan, Barry Lynn and Ganesh Sitaraman are plotting a way forward. This movement of public servants, scholars and activists deserves our support. Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.”