I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Facebook knew before the 2020 presidential election that its platform would quickly funnel people to false and misleading information and amplify polarizing political content, yet did not change its practices in fundamental ways.
The company knew since 2017 that sex traffickers were using the social media space, but its efforts to respond raise questions about whether it could have done more sooner to protect victims, how much it benefitted financially from human trafficking and whether the company faces any legal peril if its actions showed ”reckless disregard” of trafficking.
Reports describing these patterns and more are among hundreds of documents disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by attorneys for Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including USA TODAY, following a series of extensive reports in The Wall Street Journal.
Haugen has sought federal whistleblower protection from the SEC, alleging that Facebook, a publicly traded company, misled investors. She could get a financial award if the SEC were to penalize the company.
“I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolves these conflicts in favor of its own profits,” Haugen alleged during a Senate hearing. “The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat.”
Facebook denied that it is the cause of political divisions in the U.S.
“The rise of polarization has been the subject of serious academic research in recent years but without a great deal of consensus,” said spokesman Andy Stone. “But what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarization.”
On sex trafficking, Stone said the company proactively investigated the activity on its platforms and reported its findings to law enforcement, although he would not say who it told or when.
As for hate speech, Facebook touts its moderation programs that use artificial intelligence to identify content that could violate its rules. Then it either removes the posts or decreases their visibility and forwards them to human moderators to review.
“When combating hate speech on Facebook, our goal is to reduce its prevalence, which is the amount of it that people actually see,” Stone told USA TODAY.
That volume has shrunk in the past three quarters, from 10 out of every 10,000 views to about five, he said. Facebook is working with an independent auditor to validate those figures.
These revelations came from thousands of pages of internal company documents known as the “Facebook Papers.” Seventeen U.S. media companies, including USA TODAY, worked together to obtain the reports.
The media outlets had been asking for the documents individually. Haugen’s team suggested they be released to all of us at the same time. A Slack channel was formed, where the news outlets began to discuss common ground rules.
This was an unusual circumstance for normally fierce competitors. We decided at USA TODAY that the documents would shed light on important information that the public has a right to know, and we joined. As a group, we agreed to wait to publish until 7 a.m. ET Oct. 25 to give each outlet time to report on the documents and Facebook time to respond.
“Every news organization pursued whatever story they wanted,” said USA TODAY executive editor Kristen Go. “There were no conditions on that. And I think every organization came up with something that was different.”
At USA TODAY, a team of 25 editors, reporters and graphic artists came together to analyze and report on the documents. So far we’ve looked through 700 documents that total tens of thousands of pages. Not all are easy to read. At times, Haugen would take pictures of documents on her computer screen. Some images were partial pages.
“We knew that the news universe would be saturated with stories on Facebook,” said Money, Tech and Consumer managing editor Michelle Maltais. “And so it became ever more important for us to focus on those stories that would be most resonant to our specific readers.”
We chose to focus on political division, hate speech and sex trafficking to start. We’ll continue reporting on other areas as well. Other outlets have focused on what Facebook knew about COVID-19 misinformation, how employees debated company policies, how Facebook fueled hate speech in India, how the company was unprepared to react to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the collateral damage caused by its growth.
Executive editor Jeff Taylor wanted our team to focus on the real world consequences of Facebook’s actions, such as families and friends torn apart by the platform’s political polarization.
Bill Navari, 57, a conservative sports commentator from Pittsburgh, told our reporters that a cousin blocked him on Facebook after he suggested she get her TDS (“Trump derangement syndrome”) checked.
“I’ve seen people on Facebook saying, ‘If you are voting for Trump, unfriend me.’ But I didn’t see anyone saying, ‘If you are voting for Biden, unfriend me,’” he said. “Facebook has become like oil and water, and never the two shall meet.”
The allegations against Facebook aren’t theoretical, Taylor said. “This is what happened to people. Our reporters were not stenographers. They looked to the documents and they went out and corroborated them and they found real world examples.”
Tech reporter Jessica Guynn has covered Facebook for 13 years.
“We’re used to documents trickling out” of the company, she said. “But this was the very first time that we have ever seen anything of this scope. It was not that there were some giant revelations that nobody had ever thought of before in terms of Facebook. But it was the first time that you saw an organization internally struggling with these issues.
“And the first time you got confirmation that they knew as much as they did about the potential harms of their products on their users and on democracy.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday that the overall company will be rebranded as Meta, to reflect its growing focus on the metaverse. But as for internal workings, Guynn doesn’t foresee a big shift.
“Zuckerberg on Facebook’s quarterly earnings call this week struck a very defiant posture,” she said. “They’ve been very consistent about saying that this was a dishonest and organized attempt to paint the company in a false light.
“I don’t expect that stance to change.”
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalists and journalism. Support journalism, subscribe to USA TODAY here.