Yesterday we published transcripts from open question-and-answer sessions that Mark Zuckerberg held with his employees in July, along with selected audio excerpts from his answers. I tried to present the highlights of Zuckerberg in as neutral a fashion as possible — I had found them quite newsworthy, if not quite “explosive” in the way that people sometimes assume any leaked audio must be.
But as you may have seen from the resulting coverage, within about 10 seconds of the story hitting Twitter, the story became “Facebook CEO slams Elizabeth Warren.” The truth was somewhat less dramatic — a presidential candidate had proposed her intention to break up a large business, and the business CEO promised to fight back against that proposal — but Zuckerberg’s slightly-more-candid-than-usual framing set the stage for a good old-fashioned Twitter brawl.
The brawl kicked off when Warren herself fired off a series of tweets in which she welcomed the fight. (Welcoming the fight is 50 percent of Warren’s brand — the other half is having a plan — and so anything a big tech company said in her general direction was always going to have a whiff of red meat about it.)
We have to fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy. #BreakUpBigTech https://t.co/c0qWuRb9NN— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 1, 2019
“Imagine Facebook and Instagram trying to outdo each other to protect your privacy and keep misinformation out of your feed, instead of working together to sell your data, inundate you with misinformation, and undermine our election security,” Warren tweeted. “That’s why we need to #BreakUpBigTech.” (Obligatory reminder that Facebook does not sell your data but rather rents your attention to advertisers based on the demographic and location data that you volunteer!)
Facebook had declined to comment this week when I told them about the audio leak, but Warren’s arrival on the scene had given Zuckerberg’s remarks a slight tinge of scandal, prompting the company to act. And so Zuckerberg surprised me by sharing a link to the transcript on his own Facebook page, (How much extra traffic does The Verge see from someone sharing a link on Facebook to 117 million followers? Way less than you’d think!)
“Even though it was meant to be internal rather than public,” Zuckerberg wrote, “now that it’s out there, you can check it out if you’re interested in seeing an unfiltered version of what I’m thinking and telling employees on a bunch of topics like social responsibility, breaking up tech companies, Libra, neural computing interfaces, and doing the right thing over the long term.”
I found this to be a brilliant bit of narrative jiu-jitsu on the part of Facebook’s communications and policy apparatus. In one fell swoop, the company removed any sense of impropriety from the remarks — while also inspiring a legion of conspiracy theorists to descend on my mentions demanding to know whether this all had been a deliberate leak from Facebook. It was not, for the record, and I continue to find hilarious the idea that Facebook — a company that refused to let CNET take so much of a picture of Zuckerberg last week as part of a glossy, access-driven preview of Oculus Connect — would secretly funnel me samizdat audio of the company’s previously undisclosed efforts to neuter TikTok.
But that didn’t stop folks from linking the publication of the transcript to the release of Bernie Sanders’ latest fundraising report, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri’s appearance on the Today show, the ninth anniversary of the release of the Social Network, the return of Pluto under a Sagittarius moon, and so on. Imagine these theories printed out on yellowing newsprint, taped to a wall and connected by sagging lengths of yarn, and you’ll have some idea of what my Twitter mentions have been like over the past day.
My favorite approach for writers who decided to cover the transcript was to declare that there was absolutely nothing interesting about Zuckerberg’s remarks at all, and then to wax on for a few thousand words about what they found interesting about it. (See Will Oremus and my forever newsletter crush, Ben Thompson.)
For the record, I continue to find the transcript interesting, less for what Zuckerberg says than for the insights into what his employees are afraid of. I said it in the initial piece, and I’ll say it again: Facebook’s employees are smart, they are self-aware, and they are asking vital questions about how the company will approach regulation, a potential breakup, competition, criticism and more. Taken together, their questions — along with Zuckerberg’s hyper-rational responses — offer a memorable time capsule of Facebook at a fraught moment.
I’m glad I was able to share it with you all, and I’ll continue to publish new highlights from the transcripts here over the next several days.
In fact, let’s publish one right now.
All Hands On Deck: Hate speech
Here’s a question from the July Q&As that I found notable for two reasons. One, it gets at internal tensions around Facebook’s hate speech policies. Two, Zuckerberg’s answer — which is basically that too much content is hosted on Facebook for the company to apply any level of nuance to individual comments — speaks to how the challenge of content moderation has overwhelmed the company despite a massive investment in contracted moderators.
Question: According to your policies “men are trash” is considered tier-one hate speech. So what that means is that our classifiers are able to automatically delete most of the posts or comments that have this phrase in it. [Why?]
Mark Zuckerberg: The hate speech policies are the most fraught. So I’ll walk you through the reasoning of how we got to this policy. And so there are a few things that are going on that I think you want to think about. So one is, gender is a protected category. So substitute in your mind while you’re thinking through this, what if this were “Muslims are trash,” right? You would not want that on the service.
So as a generalization, that kind of framework and protocol that you’ve handed to 30,000 people around the world who are doing the enforcements, the protocols need to be very specific in order to get any kind of consistent enforcement. So then you get to this question on the flip side, which is, “Alright, well maybe you want to have a different policy for groups that have been historically disadvantaged or oppressed.” Maybe you want to be able to say okay, well maybe people shouldn’t say “women are trash,” but maybe “men are trash” is okay.
We’ve made the policy decision that we don’t think that we should be in the business of assessing which group has been disadvantaged or oppressed, if for no other reason than that it can vary very differently from country to country. So we’re talking about nuances in the US, but there are different ethnic groups or different religions that are in the majority or the minority in different countries, and just being able to track all that and make assessments with any kind of precision, and then deal to hand those rules to, again, 30,000 people who need to make consistent judgments, is just not going to happen. Or, we don’t have the technology yet to do that.
So what we’ve basically made the decision on is, we’re going to look at these protected categories, whether it’s things around gender or race or religion, and we’re going to say that that we’re going to enforce against them equally. And now that leads to the discussion that we had in the last question, which is that, is this perfect? No. It’s really challenging to get to something — I mean, you’re not gonna get any answer that everyone is going to agree with.
Some of these things people think we take down too much, some things people think we take down too little. But we’re trying to navigate this in a way where we have a principled approach for having a global framework that is actually enforceable around the world, because to some degree whenever you read about big mistakes that come up in our content enforcement, most of them are actually not because people disagree with the policy.
The question you’re raising, this might be a case where you disagree with the policy, but most of the issues are because one of the 30,000 people who’s made a call didn’t apply the rules consistently. And then that kind of gets put on our motives, and people say “oh well no, you just did this because you’re trying to censor some group of people” or “you just did this because you don’t care about protecting this group of people.” It’s really not that. We try very hard to get this right, as I think you probably all had exposure to here. It’s just that there’s one thing to try to have policies that are principled. It’s another to execute this consistently with a low error rate, when you have 100 hundred billion pieces of content through our systems every day, and tens of thousands of people around the world executing this in more than 150 different languages, and a lot of different countries that have different traditions. So this is challenging stuff, but that’s how we got to where we are.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the tech platforms.
Trending up: Mark Zuckerberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren both did themselves favors in yesterday’s brawl over the leaked transcript, I’d say. Zuckerberg came across as calm, in control, and ready for battle; Warren got to make another entrenched interest look scared of her. Sometimes everybody wins.
⭐ The House of Representatives opened yet another probe into Amazon, Google and Facebook — this time about how the companies might be hurting small businesses. Here’s what Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who leads the small business subcommittee, plans to focus on, according to Joe Light at Bloomberg:
In the hearing, Velazquez plans to home in on issues small businesses face when trying to compete with or promote themselves on the companies’ platforms. That’s a central issue in congressional and federal investigations of Amazon, whose online market is used by thousands of third-party sellers to reach customers. The inquiry could give ammunition to critics who complain that big internet platforms are abusing their dominance to harm competition.
The companies already face investigations from the House Antitrust Subcommittee, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.
The planned hearing is one more layer of scrutiny on top of a growing pile of hearings, pressure campaigns and formal investigations the companies face. The FTC and the Justice Department have already started potentially overlapping inquiries into whether large technology firms have violated antitrust law. The House Antitrust Subcommittee, led by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, has held hearings and submitted intensive document requests to tech companies about potentially anti-competitive practices.
Comcast weighed in on the antitrust battle against Google, accusing the tech giant of using privacy concerns as a pretext to limit their ad division’s ability to sell ads on behalf of clients’ YouTube channels. (Paresh Dave and Sheila Dang / Reuters)
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) went on Recode Decode to discuss tech regulation. He said there is bipartisan agreement in Congress around the need for new digital privacy laws, and proposed three additional solutions, including forcing people to use their real names to post content. (Eric Johnson / Recode)
A former Yahoo engineer is facing five years in prison after hacking into 6,000 Yahoo accounts — mostly belonging to young women and work colleagues — in search of sexual photos and videos. (AP)
A UK lawsuit filed against Google by more than 4 million iPhone users over data-collection claims is moving forward after London appeals judges overturned an earlier ruling that had thrown out the case. The plaintiffs are seeking as much as $3.9 billion in damages. (Jonathan Browning and Ellen Milligan / Bloomberg)
⭐ Visa and Mastercard are reconsidering their involvement in Facebook’s Libra network, following backlash from US and EU regulators. The financial institutions had originally signed on to help build and maintain the network, but when Facebook asked them to make their support public, they declined. Here’s AnnaMaria Andriotis and Peter Rudegeair from The Wall Street Journal:
Major defections could imperil Libra, Facebook’s attempt to persuade consumers to swap their national currencies for a digital coin that could be used to pay for goods and services on the internet. Without a network of financial partners that could help transfer currencies into Libra and global retailers to accept it as a form of payment, Libra’s reach would be limited.
Later, they went on:
David Marcus, the Facebook executive in charge of the project, endured two days of tongue-lashings from members of Congress over the summer for the lack of details about how the new cryptocurrency would work as well as the company’s past missteps on data privacy. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told legislators he had “serious concerns” about Libra and the company’s timetable of launching it next year.
David Marcus responded to the story on Twitter by saying that “commitment to the mission is more important than anything else.” Anything else! You hear that, Visa and Mastercard?!
Mark Zuckerberg might not understand what TikTok is really about — and he’s underestimating the threat it poses as a result, this piece argues. While Instagram and Facebook are premised on originality and authenticity, TikTok is a place for entertainment and remixing pop culture. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
This reporter spent two weeks watching videos on Facebook Watch, the social network’s video channel, which claims 720 million viewers. Seems dangerous. Be careful Lauren! (Lauren Goode / Wired)
Facebook Dating promises to do something that other dating apps cannot: match people based on what they do off-screen. But to do it well, it needs people to actively use Facebook (by checking in to locations and sharing lots of photos, among other things), and that could be a problem. (Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic)
Apple is releasing a software update that will make it easier for third-party messaging apps to work with Siri. Right now, Siri defaults to Apple’s phone and iMessage apps. It’s a long-overdue, pro-competition move. (Mark Gurman / Bloomberg)
What it’s like to get really famous on TikTok, from the perspective of one of the app’s rising stars. (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)
Twitter finally launched direct message search for all iOS users. And we do mean finally. The feature doesn’t let you search the content of messages, though, just names of people or groups. Twitter! (Nick Statt / The Verge)
A Twitter outage yesterday took down Tweetdeck (and with it, every tech journalist), and made DMs disappear. It also stopped people from adding media to their tweets. The problem has now been fixed. (Richard Lawler / Engadget)
Google rolled out a series of privacy updates, including incognito mode for maps, Auto-delete for YouTube browsing history and better password security. Users can also now control privacy settings through their Google voice assistants. (Google)
A software engineer wrote a tell-all about the year and a half he spent working at Snap, complete with tales of a micromanaging boss, the company’s famous “sharing circles,” and lousy performance reviews. (Marko Tupper / Medium)
Instagram users are honing their “aesthetic” — which can often mean deleting all evidence of an ex if they no longer fit the user’s new look. Honestly a public-facing grid of all the photos you took of your ex seems like a weird idea anyway! Good job on this one, Instagrammers. (Hannah Smothers / Vice)
A new(ish) genre of YouTube video involves ASMR role-play, where creators pretend to be a doting boyfriend or girlfriend to help their fans fall asleep. (Kaitlyn Wylde / The New York Times)
It’s an honor and a privilege to have inspired satire content in The Onion:
“By continuing to use Facebook, you hereby agree to serve as a loyal foot soldier in any wars, domestic or overseas, that must be fought to defend Mark Zuckerberg and his company from hostile forces,” said the 10,000-word legal update, which, over the course of the day, drafted all current Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users between the ages of 18 and 26 into its military and subsequently instructed them to immediately report to the company’s Menlo Park headquarters.
We’ll leave it there.