Thanks to the Morning Brew for recommending us as an “Essential” read. Here’s hoping all of you who signed up over the weekend find The Interface a useful guide to tech, democracy, and the pandemic.
Facebook is a publicly traded company that mostly operates in rational and predictable ways. Facebook is also a collection of posts from more than 2 billion people, and an enduring lesson from the company’s history is that those people often operate in irrational and unpredictable ways. This weekend we got to witness an important tension between the two.
Facebook the company is fighting the good fight against the global pandemic. It has donated more than $100 million to small businesses and is prominently displaying vetted information from public health authorities across Facebook and Instagram. It released maps illustrating regional mobility patterns
that have informed elected officials’ decisions to close parks and beaches. It’s using machine-learning systems
to help hospitals anticipate spikes in demand for intensive care unit beds, ventilators, and other supplies.
And on Monday, the company announced early results from its symptom tracker
, which is asking people across the country to self-report their health status in a survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. Two weeks in, researchers say that results from the tracker correlate with available public health data, suggesting that the 150,000 reports a day the survey is generating can be used as an effective surrogate for in-person surveys. On Wednesday the survey will go international, in coordination with researchers at the University of Maryland.
It’s way too soon to evaluate which tech giant has made the most effective contributions to the pandemic response. But it seems to me like Facebook may have made the most contributions to the response, at least in terms of sheer number of projects.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of any of these efforts, and I suspect many of Facebook’s efforts will be quite helpful. (Several researchers have in fact already told me that they have been.) And yet it also feels fair game to note that these projects buttress two pillars of Facebook’s strategic messaging: that its vast size does more good than harm, and that its commitment to free speech is a pro-democratic force.
Zuckerberg said that while Facebook would not seek to interpret the symptom data it shares with researchers, its size has enabled it to make a significant contribution to the public health response.
“What we can do is help them get a survey out to a large number of people quickly, and on a daily basis,” he said. “Since we have a basic understanding of who people are, we can make sure that it’s sampled properly. We’re in a relatively unique position where I don’t think that there are that many institutions in the world that could stand up a survey like this — across the country, much less across the world.”
And point two, on the value of free speech:
Zuckerberg said that global maps could serve as a reality check in places where elected officials have been slow to acknowledge the spread of COVID-19 within their borders.
“Some of these governments, frankly, are not excited about the world knowing how many actual cases there might be, or indicators of how it’s spreading in their countries,” Zuckerberg said. “So getting that data out there is very important.”
He elaborated on that point in an op-ed today in the Washington Post
. Again, there are a lot of people at Facebook working hard to reduce the impact of the pandemic around the world. But it’s also true that the moment has presented the company with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demonstrate the merits of its size and and its free-speech ethos, and Zuckerberg is seizing it.
The Facebook groups target Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and they appear to be the work of Ben Dorr, the political director of a group called “Minnesota Gun Rights,” and his siblings, Christopher and Aaron. By Sunday, the groups had roughly 200,000 members combined, and they continued to expand quickly, days after President Trump endorsed such protests
by suggesting citizens should “liberate” their states.
You can see a clear path forward for what comes next. Posts in these groups will generate outrage, which will drive engagement, which will earn the posts and groups more algorithmic promotion within Facebook. Membership in the groups will swell, viewpoints will harden around partisan lines, and the social fabric will tear a bit more. None of this will be caused by Facebook, exactly, but some aspects may be worsened by it. By Monday there were more than 100 such state-specific groups, with more than 900,000 members, who had organized at least 49 events, NBC News reported
“We do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that down,” Zuckerberg said. “At the same time, it’s important that people can debate policies, so there’s a line on this, you know, more than normal political discourse. I think a lot of the stuff that people are saying that is false around a health emergency like this can be classified as harmful misinformation.”
A spokesperson for Facebook told The Hill that the events would only be taken down if they violate state laws, meaning that many protests against social distancing guidelines could continue to be organized on the platform unless they break the guidelines themselves.
There’s currently a debate
among journalists about how much oxygen to give these protests. (It’s a good time to re-read Data & Society’s Oxygen of Amplification report
.) A majority of Republicans continue to support stay-at-home orders, along with virtually all Democrats. The protests themselves remain relatively small. But what if they grow? And what if the Facebook groups that organize these events grow along with them, aided by prominent placement in the News Feed?
These are the same mechanics that helped fueled the rise of anti-vaccination zealots
, and — most famously — Russian election interference
. They are mechanics that benefit enormously from Facebook’s vast reach and its commitment to permit the maximum amount of speech. And they are mechanics that seem to be working basically as well as they ever have.
And so on one hand you have Facebook the company working to stop the spread of the pandemic, and on the other you have a small but growing group of users working to exacerbate it. It’s easy to assume that the corporate effort, which draw on Facebook’s wealth of resources, will have the largest impact. But history has taught us that what happens at Facebook is usually not as important as what happens on Facebook.