A Close Read of Facebook’s Disingenuous Apology Ad

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Last night, Facebook ran an “I’m sorry” ad during the NBA playoffs, promising that it would get back to basics — connecting you with your friends. It also, in a move rare in the tech industry, admitted to the problems on its platform.

The only problem is that the ad, which you can see above, absolves Facebook of the blame for problems that it created. Here’s the relevant narration:

But then something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news, and data misuse. But that’s going to change.

Okay, I’ll give Facebook “spam” because it affects any online platform of a certain size and scale. But otherwise, “something” didn’t just “happen.” (Nice use of passive voice!) The problems Facebook lists are the results of deliberate choices that Facebook made. Let’s just run through them.

Clickbait. Sure, disingenuous headlines and shoddy articles existed before Facebook (before the internet!) and will exist forever. But “clickbait” — this specific instance of misleading media packaging — is all on Facebook. You can’t build a market that blindly rewards attention and engagement and then blame people for blindly prioritizing attention and engagement! On Facebook, your reward for gaming the News Feed’s sorting algorithm is traffic (a primary example and cautionary tale: Upworthy). Clickbait flourished on Facebook because its ranking algorithm was designed to reward clickbait.

Fake news. Again, you can’t build a market that blindly rewards attention and engagement and then blame people for blindly prioritizing attention and engagement. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm was designed to reward engagement, regardless of what was being engaged with. So some enterprising publishers figured out that they could make up hoaxes and bombastic stories. Those people are bad, yes; they do not get a free pass. But it was Facebook’s algorithm that spread it far and wide, and made money off of it.

Data misuse. This is a bit like if you were storing some things at your friend’s house, and then, without telling you, your friend left the door wide open with a big sign that said, “Come Look at My Friend’s Stuff,” and then all of your stuff was stolen, and then your friend said he was really sorry for all the “property misuse.” Facebook practically invited developers to take data, had few enforcement mechanisms, and didn’t properly inform users of what permissions they were granting, and entrepreneurial developers and data brokers had a field day because of it.

But now Facebook is getting back to friends. What is Facebook doing about all the problems that just “happened” to it? Who knows. But now you’ll see more baby pictures, I guess.

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A Close Read of Facebook’s Disingenuous Apology Ad