The Facebook Papers

Leaked Facebook documents reveal alarms sounding from every angle

The Facebook Papers illustrate the company's failure to act on warnings from employees and the public at a staggering scale.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg appears for a hearing with the House Energy...
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About a week ago, Facebook VP of Communications John Pinette tweeted a bizarre, abstract attack on journalists from the main Facebook Newsroom account. Much of his attack focused on what he called a “coordinated ‘gotcha’ campaign” centering on thousands of internal Facebook documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen. The articles Pinette was ragging on began dropping early this morning.

It now makes sense why Facebook would prepare such a public, pre-emptive attack on the media writ large — the stories are nothing short of damning for Facebook. The Facebook Papers, as the leaked documents are being called, provide a look inside the black box the company has created by being so insular. What journalists found there is a swiftly rotting company, mired by its very nature and creating more problems than it solves.

Global moderation struggles — As far as real-world consequences go, perhaps most incriminating for Facebook are today’s revelations about how the company fails to moderate its platforms with equity around the world. We’ve long known that Facebook spends the vast majority of its moderation resources on the United States and other English-speaking countries, but never before has this purposeful inequity been proven so definitively.

Facebook allows language to be a significant barrier for its moderation efforts, the documents indicate. In some countries, like Ethiopia, Facebook has completely failed to translate hate speech and misinformation indicators into local languages — and thus has been powerless in curbing the use of its platforms to incite violence. In the Middle East, Facebook is rarely able to flag ads and posts that explicitly attack minority groups.

Because Facebook chooses not to invest resources in localizing policies and detection methods for these countries, misinformation is allowed to spread unchecked. Common words in local languages are banned for no good reason while inflammatory language thrives. In India — one of Facebook’s biggest markets — algorithmic recommendations send users down violent, hateful rabbit holes.

Internal employee woes — Every well-documented failure by Facebook is compounded immensely by the fact that employees have been sounding sirens left and right in attempts to change policies and right the company’s wrongs. And, in every instance, Facebook’s upper echelons have simply brushed off the alarms.

On internal chat boards, employees frequently argue over the sway of American politics in policy enforcement decisions. Right-wing publishers, some employees argue, are not held to the same standards as left-leaning publications for fear of public blowback. In the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential Election, Facebook only planned to pull the lever on special internal tools if the situation became seriously dire. But when employees raised concerns over misinformation and inflammatory content around the election, Facebook rarely acted, and, when it did choose to act, it struggled.

The Facebook Papers offer a rare look at employee strife. Facebook’s staff isn’t just concerned about the company’s inaction — they’re very angry about it, too. “History will not judge us kindly,” one employee wrote.

An uncertain future — The very features that made Facebook so popular have evolved into catalysts for its worst nightmares. This became a crux of Haugen’s testimony — that the popularity contest constantly taking place on Facebook and Instagram was inherently damaging to kids and teens. The Facebook Papers show that, yes, Facebook is well aware that its core features are problematic, and the company has chosen to make only minimal changes to alleviate concerns. Larger changes are often blocked in fear of reducing engagement and losing profits.

But leaving these features as-is has turned poisonous for the company’s future. Teen use of the main Facebook app has declined by 13 percent since 2019 and is projected to drop by 45 percent over the next two years. In the face of hard research showing these numbers, executives chose to say nothing at all to investors.

With literally thousands of pages of documents to review, the Facebook Papers’ revelations are numerous and varied. They are all the more explosive because Facebook has chosen to remain incredibly tight-lipped about its inner workings. Facebook is its own worst enemy.