October 31, 2017, 1:42 PM EDT
Mark Zuckerberg’s company is trying to tell Congress—and the American public—that its ads are not especially effective.
This afternoon—after months of deflections and evasions and many paeans about the power of community—Facebook will attempt to explain itself to lawmakers. The company’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, will testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, along with executives from Twitter Inc. and Google Inc., about the scope of Kremlin-connected propaganda on the world’s largest social network.
Among other things, Stretch will say that the well-known Russian misinformation factory, the Internet Research Agency, managed to reach 126 million people, or about 40 percent of the American population, from 2015 to 2017, as part of its efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook had previously said the Kremlin-connected group had reached around 10 million people by spending $100,000 on ads.
If you see this as a rare opportunity for Facebook Inc. to show a bit of humility, you would be wrong.
Leaked testimony suggests that Stretch will attempt to cast this stunning number—which is nearly equal to the total number of Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential election—as just a drop in the vast Facebook ocean. The volume of those Russian propaganda posts was infinitesimally small compared to the overall stream of Facebook content, as we’ll likely learn.
“This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content,” Stretch will tell us, according a CNN report about Facebook’s anticipated testimony. “Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you’d have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the [Internet Research Agency].”
Those 126 million people merely had the posts in their News Feed, meaning they didn’t necessarily read the posts, Stretch is expected to say. “Facebook does not know, however, how many of those 126 million people actually saw one of those posts, or how many may have scrolled past it or simply not logged in on the day that one of the posts was being served in their News Feed,” CNN explained. When put that way, what is seeing anyway?
Maybe the reports about the leaked testimony are wrong, and Stretch’s tone will be more contrite than expected, but this is shaping up to be a master class in denial. Facebook seems unwilling to face, let alone acknowledge, the real shortcomings of its platform. The Internet Research Agency’s activity on Facebook might have been slight in the scheme of things—though 126 million is still a lot of people, no matter what the general counsel of a $500 billion company says—but as many have documented, the social network is crawling with false news and propaganda.
Facebook has yet to provide a full accounting of either the impact of the attempts to manipulate its algorithm—so far its disclosures have focused on a single Russian propaganda outlet—or the number of fake accounts. And as my colleague Sarah Frier reported yesterday, its fact-checking efforts are barely putting a dent in the fake news problem. Facebook has characterized these efforts as a work in progress.
The company’s missteps have seemed obvious to everyone but its executive staff. Last November, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg dismissed concerns about the role of fake news as “a pretty crazy idea,” and according to the Washington Post, even seemed to blow off a warning from President Obama. On the subject of Russian ads, the company’s story has changed so many times, it’s hard to keep track. In July, Facebook said there were no ads. Then it said the Russians had bought some ads, but neglected to discuss the way those ads get passed around on its platform.
Earlier this month, Zuckerberg said he regretted being “dismissive” about fake news concerns, but defended his company’s actions during the 2016 election. Facebook, he said, was merely trying to run “a platform for all ideas.” “We will continue to work to build a community for all people,” he said.
There’s been more deflection of blame from Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s new unofficial spokesman (and Facebook vice president), who has defended the company on Twitter in the face of critical stories in recent weeks. Sometimes he’s refreshingly candid; other times, he muddies the waters.
Yesterday, Bosworth retweeted arguments suggesting that the New York Times should be the focus of Congressional scrutiny, rather than Facebook, because it failed to fully report on Russian efforts to meddle in the election. “Interesting that FB and Google have to testify before Congress and NYT goes about its business,” one of Bosworth’s posts read, referring to the Times. (I asked Bosworth to clarify on Twitter, but he hasn’t offered any further explanation.)
This might work as media criticism, but as a defense of Facebook, it reads like whataboutism. The New York Times and others may have badly missed the Russia propaganda story, but Facebook, by its own admission, sold ads to the same Russian propaganda artists. The company was, as we’re learning, instrumental in the Russian disinformation campaign. One entity failed to adequately scrutinize an election manipulator; another was party to the manipulation and profited from it.
As I’ve watched Facebook revise its story, again and again, over the past few months, I can’t help but wonder how a company filled with so many smart people—and so thoughtful about other parts of its business—can screw up its messaging so badly?
Inexperience could be one reason. Facebook has spent so much time as a darling of Wall Street investors, Sand Hill Road venture capitalists, and the Silicon Valley press corps, that it’s never really had to develop the skills needed to deal with a genuine crisis. The company legitimately has done a lot of good, but executives have allowed that fact to blind them to the ways they can do better.
A second problem, I’d argue, is that it’s impossible to reconcile the claims that Facebook public policy representatives want to make with the claims its advertising executives have been making (and would very much like to continue making). Facebook is trying to tell Congress and the American public that its ads are not especially effective, but of course the whole point of Facebook—the thing that has made it one of the world’s most valuable and powerful companies—is that it is more effective than any advertising in history.
To fully appreciate this divide, I recommend this dispatch from a New York advertising conference, in which an ad executive brushes off concerns about Russian election meddling on Facebook by pointing out that “no brands were directly or indirectly harmed by this activity.”
There is one brand I can think of that’s been harmed in all of this.