post this month, Mr. Zuckerberg said it was “deeply illogical” that the company would give priority to harmful content because Facebook’s advertisers don’t want to buy ads on a platform that spreads hate and misinformation.

“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” he wrote.

When Mr. Zuckerberg founded Facebook 17 years ago in his Harvard University dorm room, the site’s mission was to connect people on college campuses and bring them into digital groups with common interests and locations.

Growth exploded in 2006 when Facebook introduced the News Feed, a central stream of photos, videos and status updates posted by people’s friends. Over time, the company added more features to keep people interested in spending time on the platform.

In 2009, Facebook introduced the Like button. The tiny thumbs-up symbol, a simple indicator of people’s preferences, became one of the social network’s most important features. The company allowed other websites to adopt the Like button so users could share their interests back to their Facebook profiles.

That gave Facebook insight into people’s activities and sentiments outside of its own site, so it could better target them with advertising. Likes also signified what users wanted to see more of in their News Feeds so people would spend more time on Facebook.

Facebook also added the groups feature, where people join private communication channels to talk about specific interests, and pages, which allowed businesses and celebrities to amass large fan bases and broadcast messages to those followers.

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, has said that research on users’ well-being led to investments in anti-bullying measures on Instagram.

Yet Facebook cannot simply tweak itself so that it becomes a healthier social network when so many problems trace back to core features, said Jane Lytvynenko, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center, who studies social networks and misinformation.

“When we talk about the Like button, the share button, the News Feed and their power, we’re essentially talking about the infrastructure that the network is built on top of,” she said. “The crux of the problem here is the infrastructure itself.”

As Facebook’s researchers dug into how its products worked, the worrisome results piled up.

In a July 2019 study of groups, researchers traced how members in those communities could be targeted with misinformation. The starting point, the researchers said, were people known as “invite whales,” who sent invitations out to others to join a private group.

These people were effective at getting thousands to join new groups so that the communities ballooned almost overnight, the study said. Then the invite whales could spam the groups with posts promoting ethnic violence or other harmful content, according to the study.

Another 2019 report looked at how some people accrued large followings on their Facebook pages, often using posts about cute animals and other innocuous topics. But once a page had grown to tens of thousands of followers, the founders sold it. The buyers then used the pages to show followers misinformation or politically divisive content, according to the study.

As researchers studied the Like button, executives considered hiding the feature on Facebook as well, according to the documents. In September 2019, it removed Likes from users’ Facebook posts in a small experiment in Australia.

The company wanted to see if the change would reduce pressure and social comparison among users. That, in turn, might encourage people to post more frequently to the network.

But people did not share more posts after the Like button was removed. Facebook chose not to roll the test out more broadly, noting, “Like counts are extremely low on the long list of problems we need to solve.”

Last year, company researchers also evaluated the share button. In a September 2020 study, a researcher wrote that the button and so-called reshare aggregation units in the News Feed, which are automatically generated clusters of posts that have already been shared by people’s friends, were “designed to attract attention and encourage engagement.”

But gone unchecked, the features could “serve to amplify bad content and sources,” such as bullying and borderline nudity posts, the researcher said.

That’s because the features made people less hesitant to share posts, videos and messages with one another. In fact, users were three times more likely to share any kind of content from the reshare aggregation units, the researcher said.

One post that spread widely this way was an undated message from an account called “The Angry Patriot.” The post notified users that people protesting police brutality were “targeting a police station” in Portland, Ore. After it was shared through reshare aggregation units, hundreds of hate-filled comments flooded in. It was an example of “hate bait,” the researcher said.

A common thread in the documents was how Facebook employees argued for changes in how the social network worked and often blamed executives for standing in the way.

In an August 2020 internal post, a Facebook researcher criticized the recommendation system that suggests pages and groups for people to follow and said it can “very quickly lead users down the path to conspiracy theories and groups.”

“Out of fears over potential public and policy stakeholder responses, we are knowingly exposing users to risks of integrity harms,” the researcher wrote. “During the time that we’ve hesitated, I’ve seen folks from my hometown go further and further down the rabbit hole” of conspiracy theory movements like QAnon and anti-vaccination and Covid-19 conspiracies.

The researcher added, “It has been painful to observe.”

Reporting was contributed by Davey Alba, Sheera Frenkel, Cecilia Kang and Ryan Mac.

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In India, Facebook Struggles to Combat Misinformation and Hate Speech

On Feb. 4, 2019, a Facebook researcher created a new user account to see what it was like to experience the social media site as a person living in Kerala, India.

For the next three weeks, the account operated by a simple rule: Follow all the recommendations generated by Facebook’s algorithms to join groups, watch videos and explore new pages on the site.

The result was an inundation of hate speech, misinformation and celebrations of violence, which were documented in an internal Facebook report published later that month.

bots and fake accounts tied to the country’s ruling party and opposition figures were wreaking havoc on national elections. They also detail how a plan championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to focus on “meaningful social interactions,” or exchanges between friends and family, was leading to more misinformation in India, particularly during the pandemic.

a violent coup in the country. Facebook said that after the coup, it implemented a special policy to remove praise and support of violence in the country, and later banned the Myanmar military from Facebook and Instagram.

In Sri Lanka, people were able to automatically add hundreds of thousands of users to Facebook groups, exposing them to violence-inducing and hateful content. In Ethiopia, a nationalist youth militia group successfully coordinated calls for violence on Facebook and posted other inflammatory content.

Facebook has invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali, two of the most widely used languages, Mr. Stone said. He added that Facebook reduced the amount of hate speech that people see globally by half this year.

suicide bombing in the disputed border region of Kashmir set off a round of violence and a spike in accusations, misinformation and conspiracies between Indian and Pakistani nationals.

After the attack, anti-Pakistan content began to circulate in the Facebook-recommended groups that the researcher had joined. Many of the groups, she noted, had tens of thousands of users. A different report by Facebook, published in December 2019, found Indian Facebook users tended to join large groups, with the country’s median group size at 140,000 members.

Graphic posts, including a meme showing the beheading of a Pakistani national and dead bodies wrapped in white sheets on the ground, circulated in the groups she joined.

After the researcher shared her case study with co-workers, her colleagues commented on the posted report that they were concerned about misinformation about the upcoming elections in India.

Two months later, after India’s national elections had begun, Facebook put in place a series of steps to stem the flow of misinformation and hate speech in the country, according to an internal document called Indian Election Case Study.

The case study painted an optimistic picture of Facebook’s efforts, including adding more fact-checking partners — the third-party network of outlets with which Facebook works to outsource fact-checking — and increasing the amount of misinformation it removed. It also noted how Facebook had created a “political white list to limit P.R. risk,” essentially a list of politicians who received a special exemption from fact-checking.

The study did not note the immense problem the company faced with bots in India, nor issues like voter suppression. During the election, Facebook saw a spike in bots — or fake accounts — linked to various political groups, as well as efforts to spread misinformation that could have affected people’s understanding of the voting process.

In a separate report produced after the elections, Facebook found that over 40 percent of top views, or impressions, in the Indian state of West Bengal were “fake/inauthentic.” One inauthentic account had amassed more than 30 million impressions.

A report published in March 2021 showed that many of the problems cited during the 2019 elections persisted.

In the internal document, called Adversarial Harmful Networks: India Case Study, Facebook researchers wrote that there were groups and pages “replete with inflammatory and misleading anti-Muslim content” on Facebook.

The report said there were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to “pigs” and “dogs,” and misinformation claiming that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, calls for men to rape their female family members.

Much of the material circulated around Facebook groups promoting Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an Indian right-wing and nationalist group with close ties to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. The groups took issue with an expanding Muslim minority population in West Bengal and near the Pakistani border, and published posts on Facebook calling for the ouster of Muslim populations from India and promoting a Muslim population control law.

Facebook knew that such harmful posts proliferated on its platform, the report indicated, and it needed to improve its “classifiers,” which are automated systems that can detect and remove posts containing violent and inciting language. Facebook also hesitated to designate R.S.S. as a dangerous organization because of “political sensitivities” that could affect the social network’s operation in the country.

Of India’s 22 officially recognized languages, Facebook said it has trained its A.I. systems on five. (It said it had human reviewers for some others.) But in Hindi and Bengali, it still did not have enough data to adequately police the content, and much of the content targeting Muslims “is never flagged or actioned,” the Facebook report said.

Five months ago, Facebook was still struggling to efficiently remove hate speech against Muslims. Another company report detailed efforts by Bajrang Dal, an extremist group linked with the B.J.P., to publish posts containing anti-Muslim narratives on the platform.

Facebook is considering designating the group as a dangerous organization because it is “inciting religious violence” on the platform, the document showed. But it has not yet done so.

“Join the group and help to run the group; increase the number of members of the group, friends,” said one post seeking recruits on Facebook to spread Bajrang Dal’s messages. “Fight for truth and justice until the unjust are destroyed.”

Ryan Mac, Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac contributed reporting.

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What Happened When Facebook Employees Warned About Election Misinformation

WHAT HAPPENED

1. From Wednesday through Saturday there was a lot of content circulating which implied fraud in the election, at around 10% of all civic content and 1-2% of all US VPVs. There was also a fringe of incitement to violence.

2. There were dozens of employees monitoring this, and FB launched ~15 measures prior to the election, and another ~15 in the days afterwards. Most of the measures made existings processes more aggressive: e.g. by lowering thresholds, by making penalties more severe, or expanding eligibility for existing measures. Some measures were qualitative: reclassifying certain types of content as violating, which had not been before.

3. I would guess these measures reduced prevalence of violating content by at least 2X. However they had collateral damage (removing and demoting non-violating content), and the episode caused noticeable resentment by Republican Facebook users who feel they are being unfairly targeted.

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