SAN FRANCISCO — In 2019, Facebook researchers began a new study of one of the social network’s foundational features: the Like button.
They examined what people would do if Facebook removed the distinct thumbs-up icon and other emoji reactions from posts on its photo-sharing app Instagram, according to company documents. The buttons had sometimes caused Instagram’s youngest users “stress and anxiety,” the researchers found, especially if posts didn’t get enough Likes from friends.
But the researchers discovered that when the Like button was hidden, users interacted less with posts and ads. At the same time, it did not alleviate teenagers’ social anxiety and young users did not share more photos, as the company thought they might, leading to a mixed bag of results.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other managers discussed hiding the Like button for more Instagram users, according to the documents. In the end, a larger test was rolled out in just a limited capacity to “build a positive press narrative” around Instagram.
misinformation, privacy and hate speech, a central issue has been whether the basic way that the platform works has been at fault — essentially, the features that have made Facebook be Facebook.
Apart from the Like button, Facebook has scrutinized its share button, which lets users instantly spread content posted by other people; its groups feature, which is used to form digital communities; and other tools that define how more than 3.5 billion people behave and interact online. The research, laid out in thousands of pages of internal documents, underlines how the company has repeatedly grappled with what it has created.
What researchers found was often far from positive. Time and again, they determined that people misused key features or that those features amplified toxic content, among other effects. In an August 2019 internal memo, several researchers said it was Facebook’s “core product mechanics” — meaning the basics of how the product functioned — that had let misinformation and hate speech flourish on the site.
“The mechanics of our platform are not neutral,” they concluded.