This article is an on-site version of our #techFT newsletter. Sign up here to get the complete newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday
Facebook is battling its gravest crisis since the Cambridge Analytica scandal after a whistleblower shed light on its inner workings through thousands of pages of leaked memos.
Documents disclosed to US regulators and then shared with a consortium of news organisations show repeated instances of senior executives failing to respond to internal warnings that its platform enabled the spread of misinformation and promoted violent and dangerous content.
#techFT has listed some of the revelations that emerged today from the Facebook Papers, as reported by the Financial Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal:
Senior Facebook executives interfered to permit US politicians and celebrities to post whatever they wanted despite pleas from employees for this to stop. The FT reports that employees claim in the documents that while Facebook has long insisted that it is politically neutral, it allowed rightwing figures to break rules designed to curb misinformation and harmful content after being stung by accusations of bias from conservatives.
Facebook is commonly criticised for failing to moderate hate speech on its English-language sites, but the FT finds that the problem is far worse in countries that speak other languages. One employee in 2021 warned of its very low number of content moderators in Arabic dialects spoken in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya. According to one document, the company allocated 87 per cent of its budget for developing its misinformation detection algorithms to the US in 2020, versus 13 per cent to the rest of the world.
The New York Times catalogues how in India, Facebook’s largest market, the company failed to heed dozens of warnings by employees that its platform was enabling the spread of misinformation, the proliferation of hate speech and the celebration of violence. Internal documents warn of anti-Muslim posts contributing to ethnic tensions and the proliferation of fake accounts linked to political groups that spread misinformation before elections.
The Wall Street Journal finds that Facebook launched a “Sparing Sharing” tool after the 2016 election that targeted “hyperposters”, accounts that posted frequently and were more likely to share false information. The company reduced the reach of posts from hyperposters, despite executives arguing against implementing the tool too aggressively.
The New York Times reports that employees repeatedly warned that some of the website’s core features, including the “like” and “share” function on posts, far from promoting positivity as the company initially intended, instead amplified harmful content.
The FT reports that Facebook takes action on only as little as 3 to 5 per cent of hate speech and 0.6 per cent of violent content flagged by its artificial intelligence programs trained to spot hate speech and abuse. Another memo suggests that Facebook may never manage to get beyond 10 to 20 per cent because it is “extraordinarily challenging” for AI to understand the context in which language is used. Nevertheless, Facebook had already decided to rely more on AI and to cut the money it was spending on human moderation in 2019 when it came to hate speech.
Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said: “At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13bn and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. Volvo’s shrunken stock market listing
Volvo Cars is cutting the size of its stock market listing, pricing it at the bottom of its suggested range and delaying it by a day as the Chinese-controlled carmaker struggles to attract investor interest. The Swedish group said on Monday that it would now list on Friday — a day later than scheduled — at a price of SKr53 a share, which would give it a market capitalisation of about $18bn. The carmaker is now looking to raise SKr20bn ($2.3bn) from the initial public offering in Stockholm, down from its initial expectations of SKr25bn, while its Chinese owner Geely will no longer exercise an option that could have added about a fifth to the share sale.
2. Weathering a fall in viewers
Fox News will launch a new app on Monday to stream weather programming live, 24 hours a day. As extreme flooding, devastating hurricanes, uncontrollable wildfires and ice storms have hit the US in the past year, an unlikely battle is brewing in the media business, as companies bet that programming about climate disasters will draw audiences. Fox’s move into weather comes as cable news networks, including Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, have suffered audience declines this year as the news cycle calmed with Donald Trump out of office.
3. Decarbonising the fashion industry
The global clothing industry must abandon the “fast fashion” business model within the next 10 years, according to the head of Zalando, Europe’s largest online fashion retailer. Robert Gentz, co-chief executive, told the Financial Times that the retailer, which has a stock market value of €21bn and enjoyed sales of about €8bn last year, aims to use its size and power to push the sector towards more durable and eco-friendly products. “The fashion industry . . . is part of a global sustainability problem,” said Gentz, pointing to the fact that 40 per cent of all apparel in western wardrobes is never worn. Apparel is responsible for more carbon emissions than aviation and shipping combined, according to Greenpeace.
4. GCHQ looks to hack the hackers
British signals intelligence agency GCHQ is looking at deploying military hackers from the UK’s new National Cyber Force to “go after” ransomware gangs. The number of ransomware attacks, in which hackers seize a company’s systems or data and will release them only when a ransom is paid, has doubled across the UK in 2021 compared with last year. While the details of such operations are top secret, they typically involve actions such as blocking adversaries’ phone signals or disrupting their servers.
5. Just Eat defends Grubhub acquisition
Just Eat Takeaway.com has insisted it has a “clear improvement plan” for Grubhub after coming under renewed pressure from an activist investor to sell or spin off the US food delivery business by the end of 2021. Just Eat completed its $7.3bn acquisition of Grubhub only four months ago, but its share price has fallen more than 32 per cent this year, prompting investors to call for it to sell off assets or risk a hostile takeover.
Tech week ahead
Monday: Facebook will report its third-quarter earnings.
Tuesday: Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Robinhood, Advanced Micro Devices and MediaTek will report earnings.
Wednesday: Spotify, Samsung Electronics, eBay and Contemporary Amperex Technology will report earnings. Software firm Informatica expected to IPO.
Thursday: Apple, Amazon, Shopify, LG Electronics, Sony and BYD will release earnings.
Friday: Volvo expected to IPO.