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Another Facebook mishap proves it’s too big to manage

April 1, 2022, 5:28 PM UTC

Facebook’s latest gaffe became public Thursday courtesy of The Verge, which published an article exposing a “massive ranking failure” that caused the promotion—rather than the intended demotion—of posts containing misinformation, violence, and other distasteful content.

At first glance, the story delivers yet another blow to Facebook, casting its engineers and executives as unaccountable technocrats unable to manage their own immensely powerful creation. 

The Verge, citing an internal report obtained by the outlet, reported that the bug lingered for six months before Facebook employees fixed the problem. The lapse allowed objectionable posts to seep into users’ News Feed, “spiking views by as much as 30 percent globally.” 

The article, however, leaves readers with far more questions than answers, likely owing to a dearth of information contained in Facebook’s internal report. How many offensive posts were improperly promoted? How many additional views did these posts receive as a result of the bug? What kinds of posts benefited the most from this slipup? Was the six-month gap reasonable in light of Facebook’s incredibly complex infrastructure?

Joe Osborne, a spokesperson for Facebook parent Meta, tweeted Thursday that the bug “had no meaningful, long-term impact on the problematic content people saw” because a “very small” number of Facebook posts are eligible for promotion or down-ranking. But Osborne frustratingly offered no data to validate his claim.

Ultimately, the report reinforces much of what we already know about Facebook: The platform is an uncontrollable beast, beaming all manner of unsavory content into countless brains each day. Try as it might, Facebook can’t engineer its way out of this problem via artificial intelligence, manual content moderation, or algorithmically-driven post demotion.

Such stories will prompt calls for stronger oversight of large social media companies. Sahar Massachi, a cofounder of the Integrity Institute nonprofit and a former Facebook civic integrity team member, told The Verge that bugs are “inevitable and understandable” on platforms like Facebook, but users are left in the dark when safety protocols go awry.

“We need real transparency to build a sustainable system of accountability, so we can help them catch these problems quickly,” Massachi said.

The feasibility of such oversight, however, remains very much in question.

The prospect of Washington regulators trolling through Facebook’s unfathomably large web of algorithms feels comically naive. 

Congress could mandate that social media companies disclose more internal information about content moderation practices, but such requirements likely wouldn’t encompass reports like the one uncovered by The Verge. 

Legislators could force tech firms to fork over more internal documents, though companies surely would respond by conducting less introspective research and authoring fewer written materials.

Instead, the more practical solution entails cutting down the size of vast social media bureaucracies, either through market forces or antitrust actions. As Meta proves time and again, it’s too big, unmanageable, and unmotivated to act responsibly.

Until that happens, expect more stories like this latest Facebook blunder.

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Win one, lose one. Labor organizers secured a historic victory Friday in New York, winning their first unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse, though a separate vote at an Alabama facility appeared likely to fail, the Associated Press reported. The National Labor Relations Board tallied 2,654 votes in favor of unionizing at a Staten Island warehouse, with 2,131 opposing the drive. A revote at a site in Bessemer, Ala., where federal officials nullified the first election in light of Amazon’s anti-union actions, appeared likely to fail for a second time by 993 to 875. However, union organizers are contesting 416 votes, which could flip the result.

Race against the crypto. European Union officials are debating whether to cut the time needed to implement new rules targeting cryptocurrencies in member nations, citing concerns that Russians may use digital tokens to circumvent sanctions tied to their country’s invasion of Ukraine, Bloomberg reported Friday. Current proposals for crypto regulations call for a two-year implementation period of extensive new rules, which are designed to keep financial markets stable and limit consumer exposure to risk. Multiple crypto exchanges and government agencies have reported no notable increase in crypto transactions tied to Russia, though policymakers remain wary of the potential for abuse.

Yet another split? GameStop disclosed plans to ask shareholders to approve a stock split, causing the meme stock darling’s share price to briefly rocket up Friday morning, Reuters reported. GameStop shares jumped 13% after the opening bell before settling at a 3% gain as of late morning. The video-game retailer is the third large company in recent weeks to announce plans for a stock split, joining Amazon and Alphabet in seeking to make shares cheaper and more attractive to retail investors. Share prices of the two tech giants exceed $2,750, while GameStop shares traded at $174 on Friday.

A lucky coincidence? Justice Department investigators are conducting an insider-trading inquiry that involves Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick and an options buyer, Alexander von Furstenberg, who made large investments in the video game developer days before news broke of Microsoft’s intention to acquire the company, the Wall Street Journal reported. Citing sources familiar with the investigation, the Journal said von Furstenberg bought options in January now valued at $59 million in unrealized profit on behalf of himself and media moguls Barry Diller and David Geffen. The purchases took place days after a meeting between Kotick and von Furstenberg, which Diller described as a “social breakfast.” Diller scoffed at allegations of insider trading, calling the timing “a simple coincidence.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

No wavering here. As the corporate world faces political pressure to denounce recent Republican efforts targeting LGBTQ rights, Apple isn’t sitting on the sidelines. Politico reported Friday that the world’s largest company by market cap, led by openly gay CEO Tim Cook, has mobilized a large contingent of lobbyists, lawyers, and supporters to fight against various actions by Republican politicians. The Apple brigade is taking particular aim at legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in sporting events that match their gender identity, as well as Texas’s move to launch child abuse investigations of parents allowing their children to receive gender-affirming medical care.

From the article:

The fight is not merely a values-driven issue for businesses like Apple. Studies have shown that companies struggle to recruit and retain employees—particularly the younger, college-educated workers that Apple relies on—in states that consider or pass legislation targeting LGBTQ people. And the tech industry is known for having a high concentration of trans employees, meaning Apple is responding to the needs of its workforce.

The advocacy poses political risks for Apple as Republicans begin to criticize the company’s opposition to the bills. Some Republicans in Iowa have argued that Apple should not continue to receive state subsidies as it opposes legislation banning trans girls from participating in high school sports that match their gender identity.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Chinese tech giant banned by the U.S. has been an early winner from Russia’s war on Ukraine, by Vivienne Walt

Citi says metaverse economy could be worth $13 trillion by 2030, by Chris Morris

How the NFT-based game Axie Infinity suffered one of the largest crypto heists in history, by Nicholas Gordon

Nextdoor CEO says Gen Z doesn’t want to work for companies that are silent on politics, by Jonathan Vanian

‘Crypto Robin Hood’ stole $50 million before experiencing a change of heart. Now he’s asking victims to apply to get their money back, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Web3 skeptic Molly White and her mission to pop the blockchain bubble, by Declan Harty

Ethereum’s Russian-born cofounder has been quietly supporting a DAO that raised $8 million in crypto for Ukraine. His dad is even more involved, by Taylor Locke

BEFORE YOU GO

Still waiting for 45. The continued absence of former President Donald Trump from his social media site, Truth Social, remains nothing short of confounding. Now, Bloomberg reports that shares of the blank-check outfit behind the app are sinking as buzz around the platform has died down. Digital World Acquisition, which plans to merge with Trump Media & Technology Group, is trading 31% lower from February, when the app debuted to modest fanfare. The decline coincides with a dramatic falloff in daily downloads of the app, which are down from 170,000 in February to 8,000 in late March, per research firm Apptopia. Where art thou, The Donald?

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