SAN FRANCISCO — In 2019, Facebook researchers started a brand new research of one of many social community’s foundational options: the Like button.

They examined what individuals would do if Facebook eliminated the distinct thumbs-up icon and different emoji reactions from posts on its photo-sharing app Instagram, in line with firm paperwork. The buttons had generally brought on Instagram’s youngest customers “stress and anxiety,” the researchers discovered, particularly if posts didn’t get sufficient Likes from pals.

But the researchers found that when the Like button was hidden, customers interacted much less with posts and adverts. At the identical time, it didn’t alleviate youngsters’ social anxiousness and younger customers didn’t share extra pictures, as the corporate thought they may, resulting in a combined bag of outcomes.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief government, and different managers mentioned hiding the Like button for extra Instagram customers, in line with the paperwork. In the tip, a bigger take a look at was rolled out in only a restricted capability to “build a positive press narrative” round Instagram.

The analysis on the Like button was an instance of how Facebook has questioned the bedrock options of social networking. As the corporate has confronted disaster after disaster on misinformation, privateness and hate speech, a central situation has been whether or not the fundamental approach that the platform works has been at fault — basically, the options which have made Facebook be Facebook.

Apart from the Like button, Facebook has scrutinized its share button, which lets customers immediately unfold content material posted by different individuals; its teams function, which is used to kind digital communities; and different instruments that outline how greater than 3.5 billion individuals behave and work together on-line. The analysis, specified by 1000’s of pages of inner paperwork, underlines how the corporate has repeatedly grappled with what it has created.

What researchers discovered was usually removed from optimistic. Time and once more, they decided that individuals misused key options or that these options amplified poisonous content material, amongst different results. In an August 2019 inner memo, a number of researchers mentioned it was Facebook’s “core product mechanics” — which means the fundamentals of how the product functioned — that had let misinformation and hate speech flourish on the location.

“The mechanics of our platform are not neutral,” they concluded.

The paperwork — which embody slide decks, inner dialogue threads, charts, memos and displays — don’t present what actions Facebook took after receiving the findings. In latest years, the corporate has modified some options, making it simpler for individuals to cover posts they don’t need to see and turning off political group suggestions to scale back the unfold of misinformation.

But the core approach that Facebook operates — a community the place data can unfold quickly and the place individuals can accumulate pals and followers and Likes — finally stays largely unchanged.

Many important modifications to the social community have been blocked within the service of progress and protecting customers engaged, some present and former executives mentioned. Facebook is valued at greater than $900 billion.

“There’s a gap between the fact that you can have pretty open conversations inside of Facebook as an employee,” mentioned Brian Boland, a Facebook vice chairman who left final 12 months. “Actually getting change done can be much harder.”

The firm paperwork are a part of the Facebook Papers, a cache supplied to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to Congress by a lawyer representing Frances Haugen, a former Facebook worker who has turn into a whistle-blower. Ms. Haugen earlier gave the paperwork to The Wall Street Journal. This month, a congressional workers member provided the redacted disclosures to greater than a dozen different information organizations, together with The New York Times.

In an announcement, Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, criticized articles primarily based on the paperwork, saying that they have been constructed on a “false premise.”

“Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or well-being misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie,” he mentioned. He mentioned Facebook had invested $13 billion and employed greater than 40,000 individuals to maintain individuals secure, including that the corporate has known as “for updated regulations where democratic governments set industry standards to which we can all adhere.”

In a submit this month, Mr. Zuckerberg mentioned it was “deeply illogical” that the corporate would give precedence to dangerous content material as a result of Facebook’s advertisers don’t need to purchase adverts on a platform that spreads hate and misinformation.

“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” he wrote.

When Mr. Zuckerberg based Facebook 17 years in the past in his Harvard University dorm room, the location’s mission was to attach individuals on school campuses and produce them into digital teams with widespread pursuits and areas.

Growth exploded in 2006 when Facebook launched the News Feed, a central stream of pictures, movies and standing updates posted by individuals’s pals. Over time, the corporate added extra options to maintain individuals serious about spending time on the platform.

In 2009, Facebook launched the Like button. The tiny thumbs-up image, a easy indicator of individuals’s preferences, turned one of many social community’s most essential options. The firm allowed different web sites to undertake the Like button so customers may share their pursuits again to their Facebook profiles.

That gave Facebook perception into individuals’s actions and sentiments exterior of its personal web site, so it may higher goal them with promoting. Likes additionally signified what customers wished to see extra of of their News Feeds so individuals would spend extra time on Facebook.

Facebook additionally added the teams function, the place individuals be a part of personal communication channels to speak about particular pursuits, and pages, which allowed companies and celebrities to amass giant fan bases and broadcast messages to these followers.

Another innovation was the share button, which individuals used to shortly share pictures, movies and messages posted by others to their very own News Feed or elsewhere. An mechanically generated suggestions system additionally urged new teams, pals or pages for individuals to observe, primarily based on their earlier on-line habits.

But the options had negative effects, in line with the paperwork. Some individuals started utilizing Likes to check themselves to others. Others exploited the share button to unfold data shortly, so false or deceptive content material went viral in seconds.

Facebook has mentioned it conducts inner analysis partly to pinpoint points that may be tweaked to make its merchandise safer. Adam Mosseri, the top of Instagram, has mentioned that analysis on customers’ well-being led to investments in anti-bullying measures on Instagram.

Understand the Facebook Papers

Card 1 of 6

A tech big in bother. The leak of inner paperwork by a former Facebook worker has supplied an intimate look on the operations of the secretive social media firm and renewed requires higher rules of the corporate’s large attain into the lives of its customers.

The whistle-blower. During an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Oct. 3, Frances Haugen, a Facebook product supervisor who left the corporate in May, revealed that she was liable for the leak of these inner paperwork.

Ms. Haugen’s testimony in Congress. On Oct. 5, Ms. Haugen testified earlier than a Senate subcommittee, saying that Facebook was keen to make use of hateful and dangerous content material on its web site to maintain customers coming again. Facebook executives, together with Mark Zuckerberg, known as her accusations unfaithful.

The Facebook Papers. Ms. Haugen additionally filed a criticism with the Securities and Exchange Commission and supplied the paperwork to Congress in redacted kind. A congressional workers member then provided the paperwork, referred to as the Facebook Papers, to a number of information organizations, together with The New York Times.

Yet Facebook can’t merely tweak itself in order that it turns into a more healthy social community when so many issues hint again to core options, mentioned Jane Lytvynenko, a senior fellow on the Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center, who research social networks and misinformation.

“When we talk about the Like button, the share button, the News Feed and their power, we’re essentially talking about the infrastructure that the network is built on top of,” she mentioned. “The crux of the problem here is the infrastructure itself.”

As Facebook’s researchers dug into how its merchandise labored, the worrisome outcomes piled up.

In a July 2019 research of teams, researchers traced how members in these communities could possibly be focused with misinformation. The place to begin, the researchers mentioned, have been individuals referred to as “invite whales,” who despatched invites out to others to hitch a non-public group.

These individuals have been efficient at getting 1000’s to hitch new teams in order that the communities ballooned virtually in a single day, the research mentioned. Then the invite whales may spam the teams with posts selling ethnic violence or different dangerous content material, in line with the research.

Another 2019 report checked out how some individuals accrued giant followings on their Facebook pages, usually utilizing posts about cute animals and different innocuous matters. But as soon as a web page had grown to tens of 1000’s of followers, the founders offered it. The patrons then used the pages to point out followers misinformation or politically divisive content material, in line with the research.

As researchers studied the Like button, executives thought of hiding the function on Facebook as properly, in line with the paperwork. In September 2019, it eliminated Likes from customers’ Facebook posts in a small experiment in Australia.

The firm wished to see if the change would scale back strain and social comparability amongst customers. That, in flip, may encourage individuals to submit extra steadily to the community.

But individuals didn’t share extra posts after the Like button was eliminated. Facebook selected to not roll the take a look at out extra broadly, noting, “Like counts are extremely low on the long list of problems we need to solve.”

Last 12 months, firm researchers additionally evaluated the share button. In a September 2020 research, a researcher wrote that the button and so-called reshare aggregation items within the News Feed, that are mechanically generated clusters of posts which have already been shared by individuals’s pals, have been “designed to attract attention and encourage engagement.”

But gone unchecked, the options may “serve to amplify bad content and sources,” similar to bullying and borderline nudity posts, the researcher mentioned.

That’s as a result of the options made individuals much less hesitant to share posts, movies and messages with each other. In reality, customers have been thrice extra prone to share any form of content material from the reshare aggregation items, the researcher mentioned.

One submit that unfold broadly this fashion was an undated message from an account known as “The Angry Patriot.” The submit notified customers that individuals protesting police brutality have been “targeting a police station” in Portland, Ore. After it was shared via reshare aggregation items, a whole bunch of hate-filled feedback flooded in. It was an instance of “hate bait,” the researcher mentioned.

A typical thread within the paperwork was how Facebook staff argued for adjustments in how the social community labored and sometimes blamed executives for standing in the way in which.

In an August 2020 inner submit, a Facebook researcher criticized the advice system that means pages and teams for individuals to observe and mentioned it could actually “very quickly lead users down the path to conspiracy theories and groups.”

“Out of fears over potential public and policy stakeholder responses, we are knowingly exposing users to risks of integrity harms,” the researcher wrote. “During the time that we’ve hesitated, I’ve seen folks from my hometown go further and further down the rabbit hole” of conspiracy concept actions like QAnon and anti-vaccination and Covid-19 conspiracies.

The researcher added, “It has been painful to observe.”

Reporting was contributed by Davey Alba, Sheera Frenkel, Cecilia Kang and Ryan Mac.

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