Mark Zuckerberg won’t be saying sorry

Sep 30, 2021 | social network, tech ethics

The relentless barrage of media stories criticising Facebook; from those exposing their internal research on the mental health harm associated with Instagram, to analysis of the misinformation disseminated in Facebook Groups, will no longer be met with a public apology by Mark Zuckerberg, after an alleged communications strategy change at the Big Tech giant.

A new initiative, Project Amplify, was apparently signed off by Facebook’s CEO earlier in the year, as an attempt to refocus media attention on him away from his role as a public apologist for the company, towards presenting him as an innovator and associating him with new products.

Central to the plan, which was exposed by the New York Times earlier this month, was the use of Facebook’s own News Feed to not only promote positive stories written about Facebook by others, but also to promote stories written by the company itself, showing it in a positive light.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is taking a tougher approach

“They’re realising that no one else is going to come to their defence, so they need to do it and say it themselves.”

Katie Harbath, former Facebook public policy director

Facebook has always felt that it gets much more flack than other tech giants such as Google and Twitter and this has been attributed internally to the readiness of Mark Zuckerberg to proffer up public apologies for everything from racism circulating on the platform, to the organisation of the Capitol attacks. But the alleged strategy to improve its public image has generated new criticism, as Facebook’s News Feed has never previously been used as a vehicle for Facebook to promote itself.

Future limited access to internal data

Coming at the same time, and potentially as another arm of Project Amplify, Facebook has also recently limited access to its internal data used by researchers and academics to asses the impact Facebook has on its users. Crowd Tangle, a tool that provided data on the popularity and engagement of individual Facebook posts, is being broken up, with no suggestions that it will be replaced by any alternatives.

The New York Times reported that Facebook felt particularly angry Crowd Tangle data was being used against them in the media by showing that the network was being used to spread misinformation.

Facebook has publicly denied the existence of Project Amplify, or a new role for Mark Zuckerberg in its press strategy, and hit back at the New York Times for its reporting:

“The story salaciously implies we are using News Feed to improve our image, and yet, NYT intentionally clipped my statement which clearly said on the record: ‘There is zero change to News Feed ranking.’ This wasn’t important to readers?”

Joe Osborne, Facebook spokesperson

Calls for regulation both sides of the Atlantic

The story predictably led to calls both side of the Atlantic to speed up regulation to curb the enormous power and influence Facebook has over the online information ecosystem, with one US commentator calling the amount of power Facebook has online ‘chilling’.

The UK’s own Online Safety Bill, published in draft from in May this year, will establish a “duty of care” for social media companies and other platforms which allow user-generated content, to remove “harmful content” which can include content that isn’t technically illegal but is judged to be harmful, such as posts that encourage self-harm and misinformation.

While we wait for it, it’s likely all social platforms, not just Facebook, are going to be increasingly fighting back against the deluge of criticism that threatens to engulf them.