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The ‘Facebook Files’ Investigation Highlights Key Concerns in the Platform’s Approach



the facebook files investigation highlights key concerns in the platforms approach

The biggest social media news story of the week has been ‘The Facebook Files’, a selection of internal documents revealing various investigations into the societal impacts of The Social Network, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The full Facebook Files series is available here, and is worth reading for anyone interested in the impacts of social media more broadly, but in summary, the key discoveries of the reports are:

  • Facebook has a system in place which subjects high profile users to a different review process than regular users
  • Facebook-commissioned studies have repeatedly found that Instagram can have harmful mental health impacts on users
  • Facebook’s ‘Family and Friends’ algorithm update in 2018, designed to reduce angst on the platform, actually increased division
  • Facebook is not doing enough to address potential harms it’s causing in developing nations
  • Anti-vaccine activists have used Facebook to sow doubt and spread fear about the COVID-19 vaccine deployment

None of these revelations in themselves are anything knew – everyone who’s done any research into Facebook and its algorithms would be aware of the harms that it can, and has caused over time, and Facebook itself has said that it is addressing all of these elements, and evolving its tools in line with its internal findings.

But what’s interesting about the Facebook Files is the revelation of what Facebook itself actually knows, and what its own data has shown in regards to these impacts, which also suggests that it could be doing more to address such.

Is it hesitating because of concerns over business impacts? That’s the bottom line of the WSJ investigation, that Facebook knows that it’s causing widespread societal harm, and amplifying negative elements, but it’s been slow to act on such because it could hurt usage.

For example, according to the leaked documents, Facebook implement its ‘Friends and Family’ News Feed algorithm update in 2018 in order to amplify engagement between users, and reduce political discussion, which had become an increasingly divisive element in the app. Facebook did this by allocating points for different types of engagement with posts.

Facebook post scoring in algorithm update

As you can see in this overview, Likes were allocated 1 point each, with other reaction types garnering 5 points, along with re-shares, while comments drove much higher value, with ‘significant’ comments earning 30 points (non-significant comments were worth 15 points). The higher the total value of each post, the more likely it would see more reach, as Facebook used this score to determine increased relevance between connections.

The idea was that this would incentivize more discussion, but as you can imagine, the update instead prompted more publishers and media outlets to share increasingly divisive, emotionally-charged posts, in order to incite more comments and reactions, and get higher share scores for their content. Likes were no longer the key driver, Facebook’s change made comments and Reactions (like ‘Angry’) far more valuable, so sparking discussion around political trends actually became more prominent, and exposed more users to such content in their feeds.

Which highlights another of Facebook’s core issues, that it amplifies exposure to political views that you may not have ever known. You might not, for example, have any idea that your former colleague is also a flat-earth conspiracy theorist, but Facebook shows you, which then, inevitably, pushes each person more for or against each issue, essentially prompting more people to take sides.

Facebook knew that this was happening, that the change was causing increased division and argument as a result, its internal research showed it. But did it reverse course on its decision?

According to WSJ, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg resisted calls to change course with the algorithm yet again, because the update had lead to more comments, addressing a longer-term decline in in-app engagement.

Facebook engagement decline

Given that Facebook is used by some 2.9 billion people, and has arguably the largest influence of any platform in history, insights like this are a major concern, as they suggest that Facebook has actively made business-based decisions on issues relating to societal harm. Which, again, is no major surprise – Facebook is, after all, a money-making business. But the influence and power the platform has to guide real-world trends is too significant to ignore such impacts – and that’s only one of the examples highlighted in WSJ’s reporting.

Other revelations relate to Instagram’s impact on young users:

“32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse […] Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Instagram is doing more to provide more protection and support over time, but again, the impact, the real world effect here is significant.

Then there’s the way the platform influences people’s responses to key news events, like, say, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

41% of comments on English-language vaccine-related posts risked discouraging vaccinations. Users were seeing comments on vaccine-related posts 775 million times a day, and Facebook researchers worried that the large proportion of negative comments could influence perceptions of the vaccine’s safety.”

Unlike most other businesses, Facebook decisions can significantly shift public perception, and lead to real-world harms, on a massive scale.

Again, we know this, but now we also know that Facebook does too.

The concern, moving forward, is how it will move to address such, and whether the approach it’s taken thus far, in working to keep such revelations from the public, and even leaving harmful changes in place to further its business interests, will be how it continues to operate.

We don’t have any insights into how Facebook operates, as it’s is not a public utility. But at the same time, it really is. Some 70% of Americans now rely on the platform for news content, and as these insights show, it has become a key source of influence in many respects.

But at the same time, Facebook is a business. Its intention is to make money, and that will always play a key role in its thinking.

Is that a sustainable path forward for such a massive platform, especially as it continues to expand into new, developing regions, and more immersive technologies?

The Facebook Files raises some key questions, for which we don’t have any real answers as yet.  

You can read The Wall Street Journal’s full ‘Facebook Files’ series here.

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The North Face Delivered Jacket Via Helicopter After Viral TikTok Complaint



The North Face Delivered Jacket Via Helicopter After Viral TikTok Complaint

  • Popular apparel brand The North Face posted a crazy marketing stunt on TikTok recently. 
  • In a video, they delivered a rain jacket to a woman at the top of a mountain in New Zealand via helicopter. 
  • The woman had complained in a viral TikTok that her waterproof jacket got soaked in the rain. 

The North Face pulled an elaborate marketing stunt on TikTok and delivered some rain gear via helicopter to a woman in New Zealand, whose complaint about the brand went viral on the platform. 

Jenn Jensen posted a TikTok video on November 17 showing herself on a hiking trail in the rain where she’s soaked whilst wearing a rain jacket sporting The North Face logo. 

“I’ve got a bone to pick with North Face,” Jensen says in the video which has racked up over 11 million views. “I bought this ‘rain jacket’ a couple of days ago and the tag for the advertising said that it’s waterproof. Well listen, I’m 100% sure that it’s raining outside and I’m soaking wet.” 

She added: “Listen… I don’t want a refund. I want you to redesign this rain coat to make it waterproof and express deliver it to the top of Hooker Valley Lake in New Zealand where I will be waiting.” 

She tagged The North Face’s TikTok page in her caption. In one comment a user named @timbrodini wrote: “*Northface has left the conversation.” 

The popular outdoor clothes brand made their own TikTok video in response to @timbrodini’s comment in which they said: “We were busy express delivering @Jenn her jacket at the top of mountain.”

In the TikTok video, a North Face employee can be seen grabbing a red jacket from one of its physical stores and then hopping onto a helicopter where he’s flown out to New Zealand. The man then jumps out of the helicopter at the top of the mountain and runs out to throw the jacket to Jensen who is waiting. 

She says “thank you” at the end of the video, which has also gone viral and gained 4.1 million views. 

Jensen then made a follow up video on her page explaining that The North Face’s marketing team saw her video and wanted to make “amends.” She said they flew her out by helicopter to the top of a mountain in New Zealand to give her new rain gear. 

“At this point the ultimate test will be if the new rain gear they gave me at the top of that mountain will hold up to the very high bar that North Face has now set for themselves,” she concluded at the end of the video. 

Some users speculated whether her original video was also a part of the marketing stunt but Jensen responded that she “turned down” the opportunity to be paid for the company’s follow up video. 

“I’m not an influencer, I was just a disappointed customer.” 

The marketing strategy appears to be a new way for brands to connect with customers by showing their care whilst also providing an entertaining video on social media. 

The North Face seems to be following the steps of the Stanley cup brand which recently went viral after gifting a woman a new car. The woman’s own car had burnt down, but in a TikTok video she showed that her insulated Stanley cup had survived the car fire and that the ice inside hadn’t even melted. 

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U.S. Judge Blocks Montana’s Effort to Ban TikTok in the State



U.S. Judge Blocks Montana’s Effort to Ban TikTok in the State

TikTok has won another reprieve in the U.S., with a District Judge blocking Montana’s effort to ban the app for all users in the state.

Back in May, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed legislation to ban TikTok outright from operating in the state, in order to protect residents from alleged intelligence gathering by China. There’s no definitive evidence that TikTok is, or has participated in such, but Gianforte opted to move to a full ban, going further than the Government device bans issued in other regions.

As explained by Gianforte at the time:

The Chinese Communist Party using TikTok to spy on Americans, violate their privacy, and collect their personal, private, and sensitive information is well-documented. Today, Montana takes the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party.”

In response, a collection of TikTok users challenged the proposed ban, arguing that it violated their first amendment rights, which led to this latest court challenge, and District Court Judge Donald Molloy’s decision to stop Montana’s ban effort.

Montana’s TikTok ban had been set to go into effect from January 1st 2024.

In issuing a preliminary injunction to stop Montana from imposing a full ban on the app, Molloy said that Montana’s legislation does indeed violate the Constitution, and “oversteps state power”.

Molloy’s judgment is primarily centered on the fact that Montana has essentially sought to exercise foreign policy authority in enacting a TikTok ban, which is only enforceable by federal authorities. Molloy also noted that there was apervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment” within Montana’s proposed legislation.

TikTok has welcomed the ruling, issuing a brief statement in response:

Montana attorney general, meanwhile, has said that it’s considering next steps to advance its proposed TikTok ban.

It’s a win for TikTok, though the Biden Administration is still weighing a full TikTok ban in the U.S., which may still happen, even though the process has been delayed by legal and legislative challenges.

As I’ve noted previously, my sense here would be that TikTok won’t be banned in the U.S. unless there’s a significant shift in U.S.-China relations, and that relationship is always somewhat tense, and volatile to a degree.

If the U.S. Government has new reason to be concerned, it may well move to ban the app. But doing so would be a significant step, and would prompt further response from the C.C.P.

Which is why I suspect that the U.S. Government won’t act, unless it feels that it has to. And right now, there’s no clear impetus to implement a ban, and stop a Chinese-owned company from operating in the region, purely because of its origin.

Which is the real crux of the issue here. A TikTok ban is not just banning a social media company, it’s blocking cross-border commerce, because the company is owned by China, which will remain the logic unless clear evidence arises that TikTok has been used as a vector for gathering information on U.S. citizens.

Banning a Chinese-owned app because its Chinese-owned is a statement, beyond concerns about a social app, and the U.S. is right to tread carefully in considering how such a move might impact other industries.

So right now, TikTok is not going to be banned, in Montana, or anywhere else in the U.S. But that could still change, very quickly.

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Israeli president tells Musk he has ‘huge role’ in anti-Semitism



Elon Musk, the world's richest person, said in video remaks that Hamas militants 'have been fed propaganda'

Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, said in video remaks that Hamas militants ‘have been fed propaganda’ – Copyright POOL/AFP Leon Neal

Israel’s president told Elon Musk on Monday that the tech mogul has “a huge role to play” to combat anti-Semitism, which his social media platform is accused of spreading.

The meeting came after the world’s richest person visited a kibbutz community devastated in attacks by Hamas militants on October 7, and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence officials.

Musk has been criticised over what critics say is a proliferation of hate speech on X, formerly Twitter, since his takeover of the social media site in October 2022.

He has been accused by the White House of “abhorrent promotion” of anti-Semitism after endorsing a conspiracy theory seen as accusing Jews of trying to weaken white majorities.

Israel’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog told him: “Unfortunately, we are inundated by anti-Semitism, which is Jew hatred.

“You have a huge role to play,” he said. “And I think we need to fight it together because on the platforms which you lead, unfortunately, there’s a harbouring of a lot of… anti-Semitism.”

Musk did not mention anti-Semitism in his video remarks released by Herzog’s office, but said Hamas militants “have been fed propaganda since they were children”.

“It’s remarkable what humans are capable of if they’re fed falsehoods, from when they are children; they will think that the murder of innocent people is a good thing.”

On October 7 Hamas militants broke through Gaza’s militarised border into southern Israel to kill around 1,200 people and seize about 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials, in the worst-ever attack since the nation’s founding.

Vowing to destroy Hamas in response, Israel has carried out a relentless bombardment of targets in Gaza, alongside a ground invasion, that the Hamas government says has killed almost 15,000.

A temporary truce has been in effect since Friday.

– Talk of satellites –

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu and Musk discussed “security aspects of artificial intelligence” with senior defence officials, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Musk and Netanyahu held a conversation on X following their tour of Kfar Aza, one of the communities attacked by Hamas.

“We have to demilitarise Gaza after the destruction of Hamas,” Netanyahu said, calling for a campaign to “deradicalise” the Palestinian territory.

“Then we also have to rebuild Gaza, and I hope to have our Arab friends help in that context.”

Netanyahu told Musk he hoped to resume United States-mediated normalisation talks with Saudi Arabia after Hamas’s defeat and “expand the circle of peace beyond anything imaginable”.

The war stalled progress towards a Saudi-Israel normalisation deal, and in early November Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler denounced the conduct of Israeli forces fighting Hamas in Gaza.

Israel’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said his country had reached an understanding in principle on the use of Starlink satellites, operated by Musk’s company SpaceX, in Israel and the Gaza Strip “with the approval of the Israeli Ministry of Communications”.

Starlink is a network of satellites in low Earth orbit that can provide internet to remote locations, or areas that have had normal communications infrastructure disabled.

In September, Netanyahu urged Musk “to stop not only anti-Semitism, or rolling it back as best you can, but any collective hatred” on X.

Musk said at the time that while his platform could not stop all hate speech before it was posted, he was “generally against attacking any group, no matter who it is”.

X Corp is currently suing nonprofit Media Matters on the grounds that it has driven away advertisers by portraying the site as rife with anti-Semitic content.

Musk has also threatened to file suit against the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, over its claims that problematic and racist speech has soared on the site since he completed his $44-billion takeover.

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