I found this Radiolab piece on the difficulty of moderating content on Facebook fascinating. Facebook really faces an impossible task – people don’t actually know what they want from Facebook in terms of standards. In fact, they frequently want the opposite things at the same time. No censorship (e.g. breastfeeding photos) and moderation (removing fake news and hate speech). One might think the domains to which people want them applied are distinct, but I think the Radiolab piece points out how fuzzy those lines are – some breastfeeding photos can be really disturbing for some (e.g. not involving children) and some feminist activists want the freedom to express hate speech towards white males. Neither of those groups are necessarily wrong – it just shows that enforcing consistent policies that satisfy everyone is literally impossible. Most criticisms of Facebook end up looking like this Ringer piece that criticizes what Facebook is doing without really presenting a clear alternative for what should be done. The same media that complain (with justification) that too few companies have too much power also complain when for example Twitter doesn’t ban Alex Jones and Infowars immediately, the way other social media platforms did. In a more fractured social media world, the likelihood of an Infowars persisting would obviously be higher. So the criticisms are incoherent.
But the bigger takeaway for me from the Radiolab story is just how improbable Facebook is. People sometimes ask me what I think about the Facebook privacy violations and election meddling and other issues. Facebook clearly did some things wrong, much of which they’ve acknowledged. But it’s difficult for people to understand how inconceivable these issues were when Facebook was starting up. Like, Facebook definitely had privacy issues in regards to its Platform that some apps took advantage of. But Platform came out in 2007. At that time, Facebook was still an underdog, much less popular than MySpace. There were no such thing as Pages, people weren’t really reading much news on the site, it was a totally different thing. If someone had said back then, “be careful that your settings aren’t used to influence a U.S. election in 9 years” it would have sounded absurd. It would have sounded like telling a small business owner, hey, make sure your policies don’t influence a trade war with China. It was beyond the realm of imagination. So yes, Facebook is blameworthy, but I don’t know how anyone could have predicted what it would be and be able to address the corresponding issues ahead of time. Almost all startups have similar problems, it’s just that almost none of them reach a level of popularity where it becomes an issue.
Radiolab gets it right – in the old days, content moderation was just a dozen new grads in a room. It may have been their job to come up with perfect standards, but it’s unreasonable to think they would have. Facebook’s obviously a different company now, but people forget that many of the issues people complain about had their roots in the old days, when the site was just a few kids running the site.
To this day I am still amazed at Facebook’s reach. I still remember the first time I saw a promotion for a Facebook Page in the real world (at Santana Row). I couldn’t believe it. I remember when (and the company used to track this) mentions of “Facebook and MySpace” (with Facebook first) in media became more frequent than mentions of “MySpace and Facebook”. Facebook has incredible reach but to people who were there in the early days, I think it feels somewhat surreal. That an outlet like Radiolab would even have a story on Facebook still blows my mind on some level. It was just so different when I joined the company.
In my opinion, and I have no inside information on this, I think this is partly why Facebook was so slow to respond to or even recognize the extent of Russian meddling on the site during the Presidential election. I think such a notion was inconceivable to Zuck. I would guess that they were slow to investigate it because such a thing happening seemed prima facie impossible.