President Trump was already casting the election as rigged, and stories from right-wing media outlets with false and misleading claims about discarded ballots, miscounted votes and skewed tallies were among the most popular news stories on the platform.
In response, the employees proposed an emergency change to the site’s news feed algorithm, which helps determine what more than two billion people see every day. It involved emphasising the importance of what Facebook calls “news ecosystem quality” scores, or NEQ, a secret internal ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism. Typically, NEQ scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to NEQ scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently, said three people with knowledge of the decision, who were not authorised to discuss internal deliberations.
The change was part of the “break glass” plans Facebook had spent months developing for the aftermath of a contested election. It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.
It was a vision of what a calmer, less divisive Facebook might look like. Some employees argued the change should become permanent, even if it was unclear how that might affect the amount of time people spent on Facebook. In an employee meeting the week after the election, workers asked whether the “nicer news feed” could stay, said two people who attended. Guy Rosen, a Facebook executive who oversees the integrity division that is in charge of cleaning up the platform, said on a call with reporters last week that the changes were always meant to be temporary. “There has never been a plan to make these permanent,” he said. John Hegeman, who oversees the news feed, said in an interview that while Facebook might roll back these experiments, it would study and learn from them. The news feed debate illustrates a central tension that some inside Facebook are feeling acutely these days: that the company’s aspirations of improving the world are often at odds with its desire for dominance.
In the past several months, as Facebook has come under more scrutiny for its role in amplifying false and divisive information, its employees have clashed over the company’s future. On one side are idealists, including many rank-and-file workers and some executives, who want to do more to limit misinformation and polarizing content. On the other side are pragmatists who fear those measures could hurt Facebook’s growth, or provoke a political backlash that leads to painful regulation.
“There are tensions in every product decision we make and we’ve developed a company-wide framework called ‘Better Decisions’ to ensure we make our decisions accurately, and that our goals are directly connected to delivering the best possible experiences for people,” said Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman. These battles have taken a toll on morale. In an employee survey this month, Facebook workers reported feeling less pride in the company compared to previous years. About half felt that Facebook was having a positive impact on the world, down from roughly three-quarters earlier this year, according to a copy of the survey, known as Pulse, which was reviewed by The New York Times. Employees’ “intent to stay” also dropped, as did confidence in leadership. BuzzFeed News previously reported on the survey results. Even as Election Day and its aftermath have passed with few incidents, some disillusioned employees have quit, saying they could no longer stomach working for a company whose products they considered harmful. Others have stayed, reasoning they can make more of a difference on the inside. Still others have made the moral calculation that even with its flaws, Facebook is, on balance, doing more good than harm.
The writers are journalists with NYT©2020
The New York Times