No more apologies: Facebook pushes to defend its image

LOS ANGELES • Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg signed off last month on a new initiative code-named Project Amplify.

The effort, hatched at an internal meeting in January, had a specific purpose - to use Facebook's News Feed, its most important digital real estate, to show positive stories about the social network.

The idea was that pushing pro-Facebook news items - some written by the company - would improve its image in the eyes of its users, said people with knowledge of the effort. But the move was sensitive because Facebook had not previously positioned the News Feed as a place where it burnished its own reputation. Several executives at the meeting were shocked by the proposal, one attendee said.

Project Amplify punctuated a series of decisions that Facebook has made to aggressively reshape its image. Since that January meeting, the company has begun a multi-pronged effort to change its narrative by distancing Mr Zuckerberg from scandals, reducing outsiders' access to internal data, burying a potentially negative report about its content and increasing its own advertising to showcase its brand.

The moves amount to a broad shift in strategy. For years, Facebook confronted crisis after crisis over privacy, misinformation and hate speech on its platform by publicly apologising. Mr Zuckerberg personally took responsibility for Russian interference on the site during the 2016 United States presidential election and has loudly stood up for free speech online.

Facebook also promised transparency into the way it operated.

But the criticism on issues as varied as racist speech and vaccine misinformation has not relented. Disgruntled Facebook employees have added to the furore by speaking out against their employer and leaking internal documents.

Facebook executives, concluding that their methods had done little to quell criticism or win supporters, decided early this year to go on the offensive, said six current and former employees, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

"They're realising that no one else is going to come to their defence, so they need to do it and say it themselves," said Ms Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director.

The changes have involved Facebook executives from its marketing, communications, policy and integrity teams. Mr Alex Schultz, a 14-year company veteran who was named chief marketing officer last year, has been influential in the image reshaping effort, said five people who worked with him. But at least one of the decisions was driven by Mr Zuckerberg and all were approved by him.

Mr Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, denied the company had changed its approach. "People deserve to know the steps we're taking to address the different issues facing our company - and we're going to share those steps widely," he said in a statement.

For years, Facebook executives have chafed at how their company appeared to receive more scrutiny than Google and Twitter, said current and former employees. They attributed that attention to Facebook leaving itself more exposed with its apologies and providing access to internal data, the people said.

So in January, executives held a virtual meeting and broached the idea of a more aggressive defence, one attendee said. The group discussed using the News Feed to promote positive news about the company, as well as running ads that linked to favourable articles about Facebook. They also debated how to define a pro-Facebook story, two participants said.

That same month, the communications team discussed ways for executives to be less conciliatory when responding to crises and decided there would be less apologising, said two people with knowledge of the plan.

Mr Zuckerberg, who had become intertwined with policy issues including the 2020 presidential election, wanted to recast himself as an innovator, they said, adding that the communications team circulated a document in January with a strategy for distancing him from scandals, partly by focusing his Facebook posts and media appearances on new products.

The impact was immediate.

On Jan 11, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg - and not Mr Zuckerberg - told Reuters that the storming of the US Capitol a week earlier had little to do with Facebook.

In July, when President Joe Biden said the social network was "killing people" by spreading Covid-19 misinformation, Facebook's vice-president for integrity Guy Rosen disputed the characterisation in a blog post and said the White House had missed its vaccination goals. "Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed," he wrote.

Mr Zuckerberg's personal Facebook and Instagram accounts soon changed. Rather than addressing corporate controversies, his posts recently featured a video of himself riding across a lake carrying an American flag, with messages about new virtual reality and hardware devices.

Facebook also started cutting back the availability of data that allowed academics and journalists to study how the platform worked.

In April, the company told its team behind CrowdTangle, a tool that provides data on the engagement and popularity of Facebook posts, that it was being broken up. While the tool still exists, the people who worked on it were moved to other teams.

For academics who relied on CrowdTangle, it was a blow. Mr Cameron Hickey, a misinformation researcher at the National Conference on Citizenship, a non-profit group focused on civic engagement, said he was "particularly angry" because he felt the CrowdTangle team was being punished for giving an unfiltered view of engagement on Facebook.

Mr Schultz argued that Facebook should publish its own information about the site's most popular content rather than supply access to tools like CrowdTangle, two people said. So in June, the company compiled a report on Facebook's most-viewed posts for the first three months of this year.

But Facebook did not release the report. After the policy communications team discovered that the top-viewed link was a news story with a headline that suggested a doctor had died after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, they feared the company would be chastised for contributing to vaccine hesitancy, according to internal e-mails reviewed by The New York Times.

A day before the report was supposed to be published, Mr Schultz was part of a group that voted to shelve the document, according to the e-mails. He later posted an internal message about his role at Facebook, saying: "I do care about protecting the company's reputation, but I also care deeply about rigour and transparency."

Last month, after Mr Zuckerberg approved Project Amplify, the company tested the change in three US cities. Once the tests began, Facebook used a system known as Quick Promotes to place stories about people and organisations that used the social network into users' News Feeds, said people with knowledge of the effort.

People essentially see posts with a Facebook logo that link to stories and websites published by the company and from third-party local news sites. One story pushed "Facebook's Latest Innovations for 2021" and discussed how it was achieving "100 per cent renewable energy for our global operations".

"This is a test for an informational unit clearly marked as coming from Facebook," Mr Osborne said, adding that Project Amplify was "similar to corporate responsibility initiatives people see in other technology and consumer products".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2021, with the headline 'No more apologies: Facebook pushes to defend its image'. Subscribe