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Editorial: Facebook, Meta — whatever — still must account for spread of online poison

Editorial: Facebook, Meta — whatever — still must account for spread of online poison

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What’s in a name? That Shakespearean question is getting a lot of attention right now, following Facebook’s announcement last week that it would change its corporate parent name to Meta.

In fact, the name change is much ado about nothing, since Facebook users will still be on Facebook. It’s widely speculated that the corporate rebranding is meant to change the subject from allegations that Facebook intentionally stokes rage and division in a country already too rife with it. That subject must still be addressed.

Previously, “Facebook” referred to both the goliath social-media site and the company that owns it. The name change that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday makes Meta Platforms Inc. the new corporate name, reflecting a broadening corporate focus on virtual-reality technology (the so-called metaverse).

“From now on, we’re going to be the metaverse first. Not Facebook first,” Zuckerberg said at Connect, the company’s annual event focused on virtual and augmented reality, as reported by The Washington Post. “Facebook is one of the most used products in the world. But increasingly, it doesn’t encompass everything that we do. Right now, our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything we are doing.”

Users of the Facebook site itself won’t see a change. They will be able to go on connecting with old friends, trading recipes, posting pictures of their dogs — and often also spreading misinformation, hate and other societal poison without consequences.

Facebook has been exerting its gravitational pull in American politics since at least the 2016 presidential election, which many still believe might not have gone to Donald Trump had the platform not allowed itself to be used by the Russian government and other bad actors to spread misinformation. Zuckerberg acknowledged that criticism in Senate testimony in 2018, admitting that “fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech” infiltrated the platform. He vowed to address the problems.

But the recent trove of leaked internal Facebook documents and whistleblower testimony raises serious doubts about the veracity of that vow. The documents and testimony show that, while Facebook did take steps to clean up the site — including the creation of “integrity teams” to patrol for fake news and hate speech — the site’s own algorithms were working against them.

Algorithms are the programs that determine which content gets elevated and promoted on users’ feeds over other content, based on whatever criteria the company decides to use. One especially telling example of the problem is that emotion-displaying emojis — including the “angry-face” kind — were given five times the weight of a simple “like” in the automatic scoring system that determines how much promotion a given post will get among other users. In other words, content that provoked anger was rewarded, as some Facebook employees themselves warned in the internal documents.

Such warnings were often ignored within the company, the documents show, raising justifiable suspicion that the company was trying to goose up profitable engagement by its users, even at the cost of fomenting anger online. As the revelations continue to unfold, Zuckerberg’s company — whatever he chooses to call it — has more explaining to do.

— Adapted from an editorial in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

— Adapted from an editorial in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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