Facebook's greatest misses: The five nastiest bits from recent leaks

Zuck says criticism is unfair and – look over here at our huge revenue growth, billions for future holo-conferences, and pivot to young adults

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg believes the media has made "a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company".

In prepared remarks [PDF] delivered along with the company's Q3 2021 results, Zuckerberg told investors that reporting on recent leaks – collectively known as "The Facebook Papers" – doesn't honestly reflect the company's efforts to stem misinformation, and that Facebook is not the main driver of societal polarisation.

Zuckerberg felt the need to make that argument before revealing rapid revenue growth for Q3 2021. (For the record: quarterly revenue of $29.01 billion handily topped Q3 2020's $21.47 billion, while net income grew less rapidly to $9.194 billion from $7.846 billion.)

But the Facebook Papers are the more interesting bit. Why? Because they're damning in the extreme.

For those who haven't followed the saga, a quick recap.

The Facebook Papers are based on leaks from former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen and other inside sources. Haugen has appeared before US Congress, British Parliament, and given prominent television interviews. Among the allegations raised are that Facebook:

  • Knows that its algorithms lead users to extreme content and that it employs too few staff or contractors to curb such content, especially in languages other than English. Content glorifying violence and hate therefore spreads on Facebook – which really should know better by now after the The New York Times in 2018 reported that Myanmar's military used Facebook to spread racist propaganda that led to mass violence against minority groups;
  • Enforces its rules selectively, allowing certain celebrities and websites to get away with behavior that would get others kicked off the platform. Inconsistent enforcement means users don't get the protection from harmful content Facebook has so often promised, implying that it prioritises finding eyeballs for ads ahead of user safety;
  • Planned a special version of Instagram targeting teenagers, but cancelled it after Haugen revealed the site's effects on some users – up to three per cent of teenage girls experience depression or anxiety, or self-harm, as a result of using the service;
  • Can’t accurately assess user numbers and may be missing users with multiple accounts. The Social Network™ may therefore have misrepresented its reach to advertisers, or made its advertising look more super-targeted than it really is – or both;
  • Just isn't very good at spotting the kind of content it says has no place on its platform – like human trafficking – yes, that means selling human beings on Facebook. At one point Apple was so upset by the prevalence of Facebook posts of this sort it threatened to banish Zuckerberg's software from the App Store.

Outlets including AP News and The Wall Street Journal have more original reporting on the leaks.

Facebook today offered its most substantive response to the allegations that reporting describes. As noted above, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg says the thousands of pages of documents, and subsequent testimony, don't offer a full view of Facebook's attempts to curb harmful content and behaviour on its platforms.

"We have industry leading programs to study the effects of our products and provide transparency into our progress because we care about getting this right," he said, expressing pride in those efforts, and claiming they are the most effective in the industry. He also called for clarity from regulators, as Facebook ought not to be the arbiter of acceptable speech.

Zuckerberg also lamented that "We can't teleport as holograms to instantly be at the office without a commute, or at a concert with a friend, or in your parents' living room to catch up" and stating that Facebook wants to build the computing platforms required to deliver a "metaverse" in which that sort of holo-action can happen.

The CEO revealed new investments in a team called "Facebook Reality Labs" that will "reduce our overall operating profit in 2021 by approximately $10 billion." The labs will be broken out into its own segment for financial reporting purposes, with Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and other services lumped into another bucket called “Family of Apps.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in VR

Zuck shows Virtual Empathy by visiting storm-wrecked Puerto Rico in VR


The CEO also styled his creation as the defender of small business, remarking that Apple's recent privacy changes have kicked a small hole in Facebook's revenue and – more importantly – made it harder to find customers. Yet Zuckerberg also told investors the firm's own lead generation efforts are showing steep growth.

Zuck also revealed a change in direction, to courting users aged 18 to 29 – where the network has focused on catering to existing older users.

"Historically, young adults have been a strong base and that's important because they are the future," the CEO said. "But over the last decade, as the audience that uses our apps has expanded so much and we've focused on serving everyone, our services have gotten dialled to be the best for the most people who use them rather than specifically for young adults."

Facebook will therefore make serving those young adults its North Star even though the bulk of its customers aren't in that age band. The CEO argued that competition from TikTok and Apple's iMessage make the shift in focus important.

If that plan succeeds, Facebook's user numbers will rise to even greater heights. In September 2021 1.93 billion humans were counted as daily active users, and 2.91 billion used the service at least monthly. Both of those figures rose six per cent year over year.

Zuck's outfit is clearly doing something right to get all that attention. The Facebook Papers show it's also doing plenty of things badly. ®

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