Health

A former Facebook executive pushes to open social media’s ‘black boxes’

He had been at the social media giant since it
acquired his startup, CrowdTangle, in 2016. And he had watched that project,
which tracks the content that draws attention on Facebook, emerge as perhaps
the single most important window into what was actually happening on the
megaplatform. But his project had increasingly become an irritant to his
bosses, as it revealed the extent to which Facebook users engaged with
hyperpartisan right-wing politics and misleading health information.

While Silverman no longer works at Facebook, he hasn’t
quite left the company behind. Instead, he has spent the weeks since his exit
working with a bipartisan group of US senators on legislation that would, among
other things, force the giant social media platforms to provide the sort of
transparency that got him marginalised at Facebook.

“What’s happening right now, though, is that a few
private companies are disseminating a massive amount of the world’s news and
it’s largely happening inside black boxes,” Silverman told me last week, in his
first interview since leaving the company. “I think figuring out ways to both
help and, in some cases, force, large platforms to be more transparent with
news and civic content as it’s in the process of being disseminated can
ultimately help make social platforms better homes for public discourse — and
in a lot of ways, help them live up to a lot of their original promise.”

Much of what Americans know about what happens inside
companies like Google and Facebook these days comes from employees who tire of
the corporate spin and leak internal documents. Congress is responding to
documents leaked first to The Wall Street Journal by a former Facebook product
manager, Frances Haugen. The revelations in those documents confirmed and
deepened the perception of an out-of-control information wasteland hinted at by
CrowdTangle’s data.

Silverman isn’t a leaker or a whistleblower, and he
declined to discuss details of his time at Facebook. But his defection from
Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill is significant. He arrived with detailed
knowledge of perhaps the most effective transparency tool in the history of
social media, and he has helped write it into a piece of legislation that is
notable for its technical savvy.

Nathaniel Persily, the James B McClatchy Professor of
Law at Stanford University, who first suggested a version of the transparency
legislation in October, said Silverman had been “instrumental” in shaping the
section of the legislation that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to
force platforms to disclose, in real time, what information is spreading on
them. The provision is part of a bill more broadly aimed at letting academic
researchers conduct independent studies into the inner workings of the
platforms and their social effects. As written, the legislation would apply to
Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Snap — and would probably, a Senate aide
said, also extend to Amazon.

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Washington is awash in proposals for reforming social
media, but in a narrowly divided Congress, it’s little surprise that none have
passed. Many Democrats believe that social media’s core problem is that
dangerous far-right speech is being amplified. Many Republicans believe that
the core problem is that the platforms are suppressing conservative political
views. The new Senate legislation, which was introduced by two Democrats, Chris
Coons and Amy Klobuchar, and a Republican, Rob Portman, may have a path toward
passage because it doesn’t require taking a side in that argument.

“It’s not taking a position on some of the big
divisive issues on social media and tech and regulation,” Coons said in an
interview, but simply providing “more critically needed data and research.”

Portman said in an emailed statement that “every new
disclosure of problematic activities by social media companies reignites calls
for congressional action.” Before answering those calls, he said, “Congress
should take a step back to ensure that we are not legislating in the dark.”

For Silverman, the legislation is a return to
politics. He came to the tech industry through an unusual path, which began in
2005 at the Centre for Progressive Leadership, a nonprofit organisation aimed
at training a new generation of political leaders. He became interested in
building online communities as a way to keep the programme’s alumni connected.
In 2011, he helped found a company then called OpenPage Labs, aimed at building
social networks for progressive nonprofits using Facebook’s “open graph,” a
short-lived programme that allowed software developers to integrate their
applications with Facebook.

The most successful element of that company was its
ability to measure what was happening on Facebook pages and groups, and the
company began licensing its analytical tools to publishers, among others. A
significant customer was the fast-growing progressive media startup Upworthy in
2013, followed by a wave of other media companies. I first met Silverman in
that period, and it was clear that his company’s insight into which stories
were spreading fastest on Facebook offered a distinct advantage to writers and
editors looking for traffic.

In 2017, Facebook made the service free, and opened it
up to thousands of new users. Eventually, human rights organisations and fact
checkers seeking to understand their own societies and improve their media also
started using it, as well as journalists who wanted to understand Facebook
itself.

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“That was when we began to realise how much of the
outside world was eager and depended on seeing what was happening on the
platform,” Silverman said.

But as the news about Facebook’s impact on society
turned negative, CrowdTangle was increasingly seen internally as a threat. In
July 2020, my colleague Kevin Roose started a Twitter account listing
Facebook’s most engaged links every day, much of it inflammatory right-wing
commentary. The account was an irritant to Facebook’s executives, “embarrassed
by the disparity between what they thought Facebook was — a clean, well-lit
public square where civility and tolerance reign — and the image they saw
reflected in the Twitter lists,” as Roose put it after he obtained internal
emails debating the future of CrowdTangle in July.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global
affairs, complained in the emails that “our own tools are helping journos to
consolidate the wrong narrative.”

Brian Boland, a Facebook vice president who was
Silverman’s boss before resigning in 2020, told Roose that the CrowdTangle data
he used “told a story they didn’t like and frankly didn’t want to admit was
true.” The company subsequently disbanded Silverman’s team, leaving
CrowdTangle’s future in doubt.

Silverman, who wouldn’t say how much he sold his
company for but no doubt made a small fortune, said he had mixed feelings about
his experience at Facebook.

“They gave us a lot of freedom and resources and
support to do this work for four years when a lot of platforms were doing
nothing,” he said. And it is notable that one reason you’ve read so much about
Facebook’s capacity for spreading terrible health information is simply that
it’s easier to see into than YouTube or TikTok.

But he said that the internal politics had turned
against CrowdTangle.

“There was a vision about transparency that I believed
in and my team had come to believe in that it was clear we wouldn’t be able to
pursue inside Facebook as much as we had in the past,” he said.

About three weeks after Silverman left Facebook,
Persily contacted him to say that Coons’ office was interested in his help with
the tech legislation.

The bill was driven in part by the frustration of
researchers at how hard it is to even define the problems posed by social
platforms.

Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate in computer
science at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering who studies
misinformation on Facebook, said she had gone into the project thinking she
would simply confirm liberal concerns that right-wing content gets more
engagement and promotion. But she said she also found a “very high false
positive rate for content being flagged, so conservatives probably are
experiencing content being taken down incorrectly, while it’s also true that
right-wing misinformation goes viral on Facebook.” Her project ended when
Facebook disabled her account. The new legislation, she said, would be a “game
changer.”

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Silverman said he had been frustrated to see proposals
for fixing social media that were “based on anecdotal evidence or folklore or
urban myths about what’s happening on the platforms.” He said a better window
into the platforms might also help observers untangle cause from effect across
a global platform, and understand where Facebook is causing common problems and
where it’s amplifying parochial ones. Roose’s list of viral right-wing stories,
for instance, is a distinctly American phenomenon. Similar lists in other
countries typically turn up cute animals or less partisan news, Silverman said.

The legislation is being circulated in draft form for
feedback from, among others, the tech companies themselves. A spokesperson for
Facebook’s parent company, Meta, Tucker Bounds, pointed to CrowdTangle’s technical
limits and said that “a more rounded approach to transparency requires new
tools.” (The company’s earlier attempts to displace CrowdTangle data with its
own reporting foundered when the data proved unflattering, was suppressed and
then leaked to my colleagues Davey Alba and Ryan Mac.) Still, CrowdTangle has
made Facebook more transparent to outsiders than YouTube, TikTok or Snap.
Bounds also said that Facebook was “the only major consumer platform to provide
this level of transparency,” adding, “We plan to keep providing
industry-leading transparency into how our products work and urge our
competitors to do the same.”

The Senate aide said the tech companies had only been
heatedly opposed to one element: a tough enforcement mechanism that would
suspend legal protections under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency
Act for companies that don’t comply with demands that they make their inner
workings available to researchers and the public. The aide said the legislation
would be formally introduced early this year.

And if the legislation passes, Facebook may live to
regret the energy it spent working to shut Silverman’s window into the
platform. But I suspect many of us will be grateful to rest the high-stakes
debate about social media on shared facts, available in real time.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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