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Facebook missed weeks of warning signs over Capitol attack, documents suggest – The Guardian

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As extremist supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, battling police and forcing lawmakers into hiding, an insurrection of a different kind was taking place inside the world’s largest social media company.

Thousands of miles away, in California, Facebook engineers were racing to tweak internal controls to slow the spread of misinformation and content likely to incite further violence.

Emergency actions – some of which were rolled back after the 2020 election – included banning Trump, freezing comments in groups with records of hate speech and filtering out the “Stop the Steal” rallying cry of Trump’s campaign to overturn his electoral loss, falsely citing widespread fraud. Officials have called it the most secure election in US history.

Actions also included empowering Facebook content moderators to act more assertively by labeling the US a “temporary high risk location” for political violence.

At the same time, frustration inside Facebook erupted over what some saw as the company’s halting and inconsistent response to rising extremism in the US.

“Haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” one employee wrote on an internal message board at the height of the 6 January turmoil.

“We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”

It’s a question that still hangs over the company today, as Congress and regulators investigate Facebook’s role in the events.

New internal documents have been provided to a number of media outlets in recent days by the former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen, following her initial disclosures and claims that the platform puts profits before public good, and her testimony to Congress.

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The outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and NBC, published reports based on those documents, which offer a deeper look into the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on the platform, particularly related to the 2020 US presidential election.

They show that Facebook employees repeatedly flagged concerns before and after the election, when Trump tried to falsely overturn Joe Biden’s victory. According to the New York Times, a company data scientist told co-workers a week after the election that 10% of all US views of political content were of posts that falsely claimed the vote was fraudulent. But as workers flagged these issues and urged the company to act, the company failed or struggled to address the problems, the Times reported.

The internal documents also show Facebook researchers have found the platform’s recommendation tools repeatedly pushed users to extremist groups, prompting internal warnings that some managers and executives ignored, NBC News reported.

In one striking internal study, a Facebook researcher created a fake profile for “Carol Smith”, a conservative female user whose interests included Fox News and Donald Trump. The experiment showed that within two days, Facebook’s algorithm was recommending “Carol” join groups dedicated to QAnon, a baseless internet conspiracy theory.

The documents also provide a rare glimpse into how the company appears to have simply stumbled into the events of 6 January.

It quickly became clear that even after years under the microscope for insufficiently policing its platform, the social network had missed how riot participants spent weeks vowing – by posting on Facebook itself – to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory.

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This story is based in part on disclosures Haugen made to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the US agency that handles regulation to protect investors in publicly traded companies, provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal counsel.

The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the Associated Press.

What Facebook called “Break the Glass” emergency measures put in place on 6 January were essentially a toolkit of options designed to stem the spread of dangerous or violent content. The social network had first used the system in the run-up to the bitter 2020 election.

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Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, which is facing growing pressure after a series of whistleblower allegations. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

As many as 22 of those measures were rolled back at some point after the election, according to an internal spreadsheet analyzing the company’s response.

“As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off or they changed the settings back to what they were before, to prioritize growth over safety,” Haugen has said.

An internal Facebook report following 6 January, previously reported by BuzzFeed, faulted the company for a “piecemeal” approach to the rapid growth of “Stop the Steal” pages.

Facebook said the situation was more nuanced and that it carefully calibrates its controls to react quickly to spikes in hateful and violent content. The company said it was not responsible for the actions of the rioters – and that having stricter controls in place prior to that day wouldn’t have helped.

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Facebook’s decisions to phase certain safety measures in or out had taken into account signals from the Facebook platform as well as information from law enforcement, said a spokesperson, Dani Lever, saying: “When those signals changed, so did the measures.”

Lever added that some of the measures had stayed in place well into February and others remained active today.

Meanwhile, Facebook users in India use the platform and its WhatsApp service to spread inflammatory views that fuel religious strife, the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday, citing internal company research.

Hindus and Muslims in India find themselves dealing with “a large amount of content that encourages conflict, hatred and violence, on Facebook and WhatsApp”, with rumors and conspiracy theories stirring up strife between those with different beliefs, the researchers found, according to the report. Muslims were the primary target of the material, the researchers said.

Back in the US, Facebook is facing mounting pressure after a new whistleblower on Friday accused it of knowingly hosting hate speech and illegal activity.

Allegations by the new whistleblower, who spoke to the Washington Post, were reportedly contained in a complaint to the SEC, with one former employee detailing how Facebook officials frequently declined to enforce safety rules for fear of angering Donald Trump and his allies or offsetting the company’s huge growth.

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Facebook Adds New Trend Insights in Creator Studio, Which Could Help Shape Your Posting Strategy

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Facebook’s looking to provide more content insight within Creator Studio with the rollout of a new ‘Inspiration Hub’ element, which highlights trending content and hashtags within categories related to your business Page.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

As you can see in these screenshots, posted by social media expert Matt Navarra, when it becomes available to you, you’ll be able to access the new Inspiration Hub from the Home tab in Creator Studio.

At the right side of the screen, you can see the first of the new insights, with trending hashtags and videos from the last 24 hours, posted by Pages similar to yours, displayed above a ‘See more’ prompt.

When you tap through to the new hub, you’ll have a range of additional filters to check out trending content from across Facebook, including Page category, content type, region, and more.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

That could be hugely valuable in learning what Facebook users are responding to, and what people within your target market are engaging with in the app.

The Hub also includes insights into trending hashtags, within your chosen timeframe, which may further assist in tapping into trending discussions.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

How valuable hashtags are on Facebook is still up for debate, but you’ll also note that you can filter the displayed results by platform, so you can additionally display Instagram hashtag trends as well, which could be very valuable in maximizing your reach.

Much of this type of info has been available within CrowdTangle, Facebook’s analytics platform for journalists, for some time, but not everyone can access CrowdTangle data, which could make this an even more valuable proposition for many marketers.

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Of course, overall performance really relates to your own creative, and thinking through the action that you want your audience to take when reading your posts. But in terms of detecting new content trends, including hashtag usage, caption length, videos versus image posts, and more, there’s a lot that could be gleaned from these tools and filters.

It’s a significant analytics addition – we’ve asked Facebook for more info on the rollout of the new option, and whether it’s already beyond test mode, etc. We’ll update this post if/when we hear back.

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Meta Updates Policy on Cryptocurrency Ads, Opening the Door to More Crypto Promotions in its Apps

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With cryptocurrencies gaining momentum, in line with the broader Web 3.0 push, Meta has today announced an update to its ad policies around cryptocurrencies, which will open the door to more crypto advertisers on its platforms.

As per Meta:

Starting today, we’re updating our eligibility criteria for running ads about cryptocurrency on our platform by expanding the number of regulatory licenses we accept from three to 27. We are also making the list of eligible licenses publicly available on our policy page.”

Essentially, in order to run any crypto ads in Meta’s apps, that currency needs to adhere to regional licensing provisions, which vary by nation. With crypto becoming more accepted, Meta’s now looking to enable more crypto companies to publish ads on its platform, which will provide expanded opportunity for recognized crypto providers to promote their products, while also enabling Meta to make more money from crypto ads.

“Previously, advertisers could submit an application and include information such as any licenses they obtained, whether they are traded on a public stock exchange, and other relevant public background on their business. However, over the years the cryptocurrency landscape has matured and stabilized and experienced an increase in government regulation, which has helped to set clearer responsibilities and expectations for the industry. Going forward, we will be moving away from using a variety of signals to confirm eligibility and instead requiring one of these 27 licenses.”

Is that a good move? Well, as Meta notes, the crypto marketplace is maturing, and there’s now much wider recognition of cryptocurrencies as a legitimate form of payment. But they’re also not supported by most local financial regulators, which reduced transaction protection and oversight, which also brings a level of risk in such process.

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But then again, all crypto providers are required to clearly outline any such risks, and most also highlight the ongoing market volatility in the space. This expanded level of overall transparency means that most people who are investing in crypto have at least some awareness of these elements, which likely does diminish the risk factor in such promotions within Meta’s apps.

But as crypto adoption continues to expand, more of these risks will become apparent, and while much of the crypto community is built on good faith, and a sense of community around building something new, there are questions as to how much that can hold at scale, and what that will then mean for evolving scams and criminal activity, especially as more vulnerable investors are brought into the mix.

Broader promotional capacity through Meta’s apps will certainly help to boost exposure in this respect – though again, the relative risk factors are lessened by expanded regulatory oversight outside of the company.

You can read more about Meta’s expanded crypto ad regulations here.

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Meta Outlines Evolving Safety Measures in Messaging as it Seeks to Allay Fears Around the Expansion of E2E Encryption

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Amid rising concern about Meta’s move to roll out end-to-end encryption by default to all of its messaging apps, Meta’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis has today sought to provide a level of reassurance that Meta is indeed aware of the risks and dangers that such protection can pose, and that it is building safeguards into its processes to protect against potential misuse.

Though the measures outlined don’t exactly address all the issues raised by analysts and safety groups around the world.

As a quick recap, back in 2019, Facebook announced its plan to merge the messaging functionalities of Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, which would then provide users with a universal inbox, with all of your message threads from each app accessible on either platform.

The idea is that this will simplify cross-connection, while also opening the door to more opportunities for brands to connect with users in the messaging tool of their choice – but it also, inherently, means that the data protection method for its messaging tools must rise to the level of WhatsApp, its most secure messaging platform, which already includes E2E encryption as the default.

Various child safety experts raised the alarm, and several months after Facebook’s initial announcement, representatives from the UK, US and Australian Governments sent an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting that the company abandon its integration plan.

Meta has pushed ahead, despite specific concerns that the expansion of encryption will see its messaging tools used by child trafficking and exploitation groups, and now, as it closes in on the next stage, Meta’s working to counter such claims, with Davis outlining six key elements which she believes will ensure safety within this push.

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Davis has explained the various measures that Meta has added on this front, including:

  • Detection tools to stop adults from repeatedly setting up new profiles in an attempt to connect minors that they don’t know
  • Safety notices in Messenger, which provide tips on spotting suspicious behavior
  • The capacity to filter messages with selected keywords on Instagram
  • More filtering options in chat requests to help avoid unwanted contact
  • Improved education prompts to help detect spammers and scammers in messages
  • New processes to make it easier to report potential harm, including an option to select “involves a child”, which will then prioritize the report for review and action

Meta messaging security options

Which are all good, all important steps in detection, while Davis also notes that its reporting process “decrypts portions of the conversation that were previously encrypted and unavailable to us so that we can take immediate action if violations are detected”.

That’ll no doubt raise an eyebrow or two among WhatsApp users – but the problem here is that, overall, the broader concern is that such protections will facilitate usage by criminal groups, and the reliance on self-reporting in this respect is not going to have any impact on these networks operating, at scale, under a more protected messaging framework within Meta’s app eco-system.

Governments have called for ‘backdoor access’ to break Meta’s encryption for investigations into such activity, which Meta says is both not possible and will not be built into its future framework. The elements outlined by Davis do little to address this specific need, and without the capacity to better detect such, it’s hard to see any of the groups opposed to Meta’s expanded encryption changing their stance, and accepting that the merging of all of the platform’s DM options will not also see a rise in criminal activity organized via the same apps.

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Of course, the counterargument could be that encryption is already available on WhatsApp, and that criminal activity of this type can already be undertaken within WhatsApp alone. But with a combined user count of 3.58 billion people per month across its family of apps, that’s a significantly broader interconnection of people than WhatsApp’s 2 billion active users, which, arguably, could open the door to far more potential harm and danger in this respect.

Really, there’s no right answer here. Privacy advocates will argue that encryption should be the standard, and that more people are actually more protected, on balance, by enhanced security measures. But there is also an undeniable risk in shielding even more criminal groups from detection.

Either way, right now, Meta seems determined to push ahead with the plan, which will weld all of its messaging tools together, and also make it more difficult to break-up its network, if any antitrust decisions don’t go Meta’s way, and it’s potentially pressed to sell-off Instagram or WhatsApp as a result.

But expect more debate to be had, in more countries, as Meta continues to justify its decision, and regulatory and law enforcement groups seek more options to help maintain a level of accessibility for criminal investigations and detection.

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