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What Facebook is hiding from us

September 14, 2021, 8:40 PM UTC

The Wall Street Journal has published two major stories in as many days about Facebook’s inner workings. The first, about an internal program called XCheck, let celebrities, politicians, and other big-time users break the social media company’s own rules about what can and can’t be posted. 

In one example, Facebook kept up nude photos of a woman posted by the Brazilian soccer star Neymar, in what many have described as revenge porn. (Neymar claims he didn’t do anything wrong.) The post reached millions of users, and yet, it stayed up for nearly a full day before the site took it down because of special privileges given to the famous.  

This is, of course, contrary to how average users’ posts are moderated. As the New York Times wrote last month, Facebook was paying consulting company Accenture as much as $500 million annually to remove pornography, hate speech, and other wretched content. 

The message: Rules apply for some, but not for all. 

And now, the Journal has dropped another revelatory story based on an apparently massive document trove that, according to the newspaper, includes information about the company’s effects on “teen mental health, political discourse and human trafficking.” This story focuses on Instagram, the photo sharing app it acquired in 2012 for $1 billion — and has since become a powerhouse in its own right.

Here are some lowlights, based on Facebook’s own internal research about Instagram’s effects: 

  • Instagram makes a third of teen girls’ body image issues worse.
  • 13% of British users and 6% of American users said Instagram made them feel suicidal.
  • Mark Zuckerberg has been made aware of this research. 

The research about Instagram’s impact on teens, by the way, is not publicly available. When legislators asked for it, this is how Facebook responded, according to the Journal: “Facebook also told the senators that its internal research is proprietary and ‘kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.’”

What’s striking to me about that is that, in the world created by Facebook, even just hearing criticism is just another example of the uneven application of its own rules. Here’s a response from a teen boy, who says that his time on its platforms increase anxiety: 

“I just feel on the edge a lot of the time,” he said, according to the Journal.  “It’s like you can be called out for anything you do. One wrong move. One wrong step.”

Clearly, Facebook has decided that public airing of “one wrong step” is not something it would deign to submit to, even though it’s the every-day reality it has created for millions of children. 

Facebook told the WSJ that it would work with researchers and Congress to provide research material. As for XCheck, spokesman Andy Stone said it “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding,” according to the report.

The way that Facebook treats any information that doesn’t put the company in a comically positive light is treated as a PR disaster that must be avoided at all costs. (See its issues over CrowdTangle and the Facebook Top 10 Twitter account ). And yet, this company has been a walking PR disaster for at least five years. Still, it’s worth just about more than it’s ever been, over $1 trillion in market cap. 

If bad PR is so bad for its business, you have to wonder, what else is this company hiding?

Kevin T. Dugan

@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

That funky monkey. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, is buying MailChimp, the email marketing company, for $12 billion. The deal is the largest ever for Intuit, which announced a $7 billion deal for Credit Karma last year. The acquisition points to the company's focus on the growth of small- to medium-sized companies, for which it already makes business software. 

Holiday hiring. Amazon is planning to hire 125,000 warehouse workers and open 100 new facilities ahead of the coming holiday shopping season. The hiring by the e-commerce giant, which already has around 950,000 employees, is also coming as it plans to expand its white-collar workforce by about 55,000 around the globe, with most of those positions in the U.S.

Serenity now. China, which has broadly been cracking down on the tech and video game industries in the country, said it's broadly aiming to create a more "civilized" Internet. In China's view of the world, this means promoting more propaganda and cracking down on criticism, plus promoting a socialist worldview.

Riverdance. Ireland's privacy regulator is investigating TikTok over its data security issues, in particular how it processes information for users under 18 and what information it sends to China. The Irish watchdog levied fines against WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, over data privacy issues last month, fines that the companies vowed to fight. 

Linkfluencing. LinkedIn has set aside $25 million to pay for influencers to use its Stories platform, the company said. The Microsoft-owned professional networking site has been trying to add new features to its platform, including adding Clubhouse-style programs for people to talk to one another online. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

No Free Lunch. Gary Gensler is a pretty powerful guy. He's now the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission — the regulator in charge of keeping Wall Street in line — but he has a deep history. A former Goldman Sachs partner, he helped write the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and has worked under  Clinton, Obama, and now Biden. 

So what's he up to now? Well, crypto and meme stocks, naturally. The fun stuff! His position on the new Wall Street: everybody calm down. But not in a gentle, fun-loving way, like an uncle letting all the sugared-up kids he's babysitting get the wiggles out. It's more like when a bouncer outside is telling you to calm down. Over at New York Magazine's Intelligencer (where, full disclosure, I also contribute stories) Jen Wieczner has the scoop on his thinking: 

From the article:

One defense of payment for order flow is that it lets brokerages offer free trading that in turn democratizes investing.
Can I just say something? It’s not “free.” It’s a misnomer. It is not free, and it costs everybody who goes on those platforms. Because the platform is doing multiple things: One, they’re selling your order flow. Two, they’re collecting data, and the person paying for the order flow is getting that data. There’s an inherent conflict because your order — your buy or sell order — is not necessarily competing in the market. So it is anything but free.

Is there anything that bothers you about the way that Reddit, social media, and trading apps are shaping how people buy and sell stocks?
I think of a few things. Are people able to buy and sell at the lowest cost and get fast execution when they send an order to the market? With nearly half of it in the dark market or dark pools and the like, I do question that. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

NYSE’s new investment vehicle—‘natural asset companies’—will tap into ESG fever by Declan Harty

How travel unicorn Hopper went from mass layoffs to doubling revenue by Jessica Mathews

Amazon brings its palm-scanning tech to live music venue Red Rocks by Joseph Pisani and the Associated Press

Lawmakers move to close $16.8 billion crypto tax loophole by Chris Morris

iPhone 13 will double the storage but cost the same as iPhone 12 by Chris Morris

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BEFORE YOU GO

Meme every market. What's beautiful about r/WallStreetBets, the Reddit board that's known for pumping up the valuation of stocks, is its vigilante attitude toward everything. Whenever a company flies up in value for little or no traditional reason, we call them meme stocks. Of course, Redditor investors pumping up a company would argue that what was unreasonable was the limits on the company's value, that old thinking was in fact keeping a company like GameStop from surging to its potential. Or something. Anyway, there's not a lot anyone can do to stop them, because even if you want to make a company surge in value a billion times over as a joke, there's nothing inherently illegal about it. 

But what if you do that to, say, uranium? This is what's happening now in a giant, sector-wide bet on nuclear energy as major part of the future of clean energy, according to a great report from my Fortune colleague Sophie Mellor. Futures on the radioactive material have now reached their highest value in seven years, and mining companies are seeing their values rise as much as 70%. I can only imagine the havoc this is causing around the globe, considering the international sensitivity around the material. 

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