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After Buffalo, Media and Tech Can’t Look Away Any Longer

This tragedy should be a catalyst to a fundamental reckoning.
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Late Friday afternoons are a black hole for breaking news. If editors can avoid it, they’ll hold important stories until Monday, when readers have returned from the weekend and are ready to re-engage.

But on Friday afternoon several prominent outlets rushed to press with stories drawn from the trove of internal Facebook documents provided by whistleblower Frances Haugen. These stories offered shocking insights into Facebook’s coverup of its role in the democracy-destabilizing spread of hate and disinformation, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. elections.

According to technology reporters at The Information, dozens of news outlets had been working in sync to sift through the thousands of internal Facebook documents Haugen shared, with plans to release related reporting in a coordinated push on Mon., Oct. 25.

This effort was modeled on a successful 2016 news partnership by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which marshalled multiple news outlets to report concurrently on the massive “Panama Papers” leak.

Journalists by nature are competitive and difficult to coordinate. Not surprisingly, things didn’t go as well with Haugen’s media consortium. A Monday embargo on news related to her documents quickly broke down, leading to a premature Friday release of related articles as outlets raced against one another to break the story.

It’s unclear which outlet busted the embargo first. But what’s clear is that this news is extremely serious:

Associated Press: Profits over Public Safety

Alan Suderman and Joshua Goodman of the Associated Press reported on an insurrection that “erupted” inside the offices of Facebook on Jan. 6 as employees grew frustrated with the company’s reluctance to address the rise of pro-Trump political extremism across its platform. “The documents also appear to bolster Haugen’s claim that Facebook put its growth and profits ahead of public safety,” they wrote, “opening the clearest window yet into how Facebook’s conflicting impulses — to safeguard its business and protect democracy — clashed in the days and weeks leading up to the attempted Jan. 6 coup.”

CNN: Coordinating Infrastructure

At CNN, Donie O'Sullivan, Tara Subramaniam and Clare Duffy reported that Facebook was “fundamentally unprepared” to curtail the Stop the Steal movement from using its platforms to organize events that led to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. Even worse, the company provided the basic coordinating infrastructure that turned out people and incited violence. In a damning news clip tied to CNN's report, O’Sullivan asked participants in the insurrection how they heard about or helped organize the attack.

Their answer: via Facebook groups and event pages.

New York Times and others: Carol’s Journey to QAnon

NBC, The New York Times and NPR reported on the efforts of a Facebook researcher who created an imaginary user, Carol Smith of North Carolina, to test the platform’s engagement algorithms. The researcher offered a few details about Smith, including that she was a Trump supporter and followed the conservative accounts of Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

“Within one week, Smith’s feed was full of groups and pages that had violated Facebook’s own rules, including those against hate speech and disinformation,” reports NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny. These included several recommendations that Smith join groups dedicated to spreading far-right QAnon conspiracy theories or others espousing support for a coming race war.

NPR: Violence Organized Online

NPR’s Shannon Bond reported on Facebook’s failed efforts to limit the ability of Stop the Steal and other toxic groups to use the platform’s mass-invite tools to spread election disinformation — carefully worded to get around the company’s artificial-intelligence filters, reach large numbers of people and then organize them for action. “It was only after the events of Jan. 6 and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country that Facebook realized it was dealing with a coordinated movement,” wrote Bond.

While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and many of his spokespeople continue to say the white-nationalist insurrection was the fault of former President Trump and those who broke the law in and around the U.S. Capitol, this new series of reports assigns significant blame to Facebook executives who failed to curb the spread of disinformation about the 2020 election or recognize the many online calls to violence that had deadly consequences on Jan. 6.

These stories should not be lost on those who took a weekend break from the news. The embargo was busted on Friday, but the story of Facebook’s threat to our democracy won’t go away.

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