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The Verge 2017 tech report card: Facebook

The Verge 2017 tech report card: Facebook

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A Facebook co-location map for the United States. It’s one of the company’s new disease prevention tools
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Facebook entered 2017 stronger than it ever had, but with its reputation smeared. During the US presidential election, Facebook had been manipulated by profiteers and Russian agents, who flooded it with fake news and posts meant to inflame partisan divides. Beset by public-relations crises, Facebook spent this year trying to win back the public’s trust, with uneven results.

2017 was Facebook’s apology tour

Facebook’s most consistent public release this year may have been the apology. It apologized for letting Russians buy election ads. It apologized after a Palestinian man after his post of “good morning” was mistranslated as “attack them” in Hebrew, leading to his arrest. It apologized to a black activist whose account was suspended after she posted screenshots of racist threats. It apologized to the LGBT community after suspending their accounts for posting messages during Pride.

Since September 2016, the company has admitted on 12 occasions that it had been miscalculated various metrics reported to advertisers and publishers. On Yom Kippur, CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized “for the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together.”

Along the way, the company has rolled out various initiatives designed to ensure the integrity of the platform. Zuckerberg laid out a nine-point plan to protect against bad actors. It has worked to prevent peddlers of fake news from buying ads to promote their work. It used machine learning in an effort to tamp down on clickbait. It introduced new ways for people to report stories as fake.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that it’s working. A Guardian report in May found that one site’s debunked article about an Irish slave trade saw its traffic “skyrocket” after it was labeled as disputed. In September, a Yale survey found that respondents who saw a “disputed” tag on a story were only 3.7 percent more likely to believe it was false.

The next month, Facebook said labeling a story “false” reduced future impressions by 80 percent. But it typically takes at least three days for a story to be labeled as false — during which most stories will already have have received the bulk of their lifetime views.

Fake news haven’t hurt Facebook’s actual business

Of course, none of this has hurt Facebook’s actual business. The company ended its last quarter with 1.37 billion daily users, up from 1.18 billion a year ago. Its advertising business is growing at nearly 50 percent a year. Facebook earned $4.7 billion in profits during the past three months alone.

Meanwhile, the company’s icky but profitable decision to strip-mine Snapchat for parts resulted in a monster year for Instagram, which added 200 million users in its first year since cloning stories. Instagram also led the company in introducing features that were genuinely fun: the SuperZoom, story highlights, and the ability to follow hashtags in the main feed.

And yet by the end of the year, Facebook was confronted with a troublesome new threat: former high-ranking employees expressing guilt for working at the company. Justin Rosenstein, who helped to develop the like button, complained about the psychological effects of social media. “God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains,” said Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, last month.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who once led Facebook’s user growth team, was the most critical yet. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, encouraging them to take a “hard break” from social media. Facebook responded by saying it was a “very different company” than it was when Palihapitiya worked there.

But as the year came to a close, Facebook acknowledged, for the first time, that passively consuming social media can make people feel worse about themselves. For critics who were already comparing Facebook to Big Tobacco, this felt like a breakthrough.

As it surveyed the landscape of academic studies and internal research, Facebook came to a different conclusion. The answer, it said, was not to abandon Facebook but to use it more — and differently. Commenting on posts, and sending messages to friends, “is linked to improvements in well-being.”

The best development at Facebook this year was a sense that it would begin sharing more updates like these, reckoning with the unintended consequences of its work. Facebook has never run short on good intentions. In 2018, the question is whether it can begin delivering on its many promises.

Final grade: C

C 2017 Grade

The Verge 2017 report card: Facebook

Gold Stars

  • Kept growing in users and revenue
  • Nine-point plan to protect elections and make political advertising public
  • Publicly acknowledge studies showing the negative consequences of social media use

Needs Improvement

  • Unclear that efforts to halt spread of fake news are working
  • Effort to eliminate bad actors on the platform keeps catching innocent bystanders
  • Even Facebook acknowledges that using Facebook can make you sad