Facebook’s Misinformation Addiction

One more on Facebook, this one a staggeringly well-reported piece by Karen Hao for MIT Technology Review, profiling Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a director of AI at Facebook:

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.


Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.

It’s about priorities: even if Facebook truly wants to tamp down on misinformation and polarizing content (and I believe they do) it doesn’t matter as long as that desire is a lower priority for the company than increasing engagement (and I’m quite certain it is). Whether Facebook’s priorities are the company’s or Zuckerberg’s is probably indistinguishable. Such is the power of the founder/CEO. Apple/Jobs, Microsoft/Gates, Amazon/Bezos — all in the same boat.

I know that “Facebook is a shitty company doing harm to the world” stories are getting old, but this one is truly worth setting aside to read with your full attention.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021