SAN FRANCISCO – Over the past few weeks, top Facebook executives have gathered virtually for a series of emergency meetings.
At a gathering last weekend, half a dozen managers — including Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Facebook’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg — discussed pausing development of an Instagram service for children 13 and under. , two people informed. on the meeting. People said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg weighed in on approving the decision.
People said the meetings continued this week, with a larger group that included Facebook’s “strategic response” teams, which are overseen by Clegg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Officials debated the internal research surrounding teens and Instagram, he said, and decided to release some of the information publicly, but annotated it to add context.
Facebook has been creating a ruckus for the past few weeks, which these meetings were held to end. The Wall Street Journal sparked an uproar last month after it published a series of articles showing that Facebook was aware of the pitfalls of its services, including teenage girls who said Instagram had Made them feel bad about themselves. The articles were based on a bunch of Facebook documents that were leaked by an unknown whistleblower.
The revelations immediately triggered a wave of criticism from regulators and lawmakers, many of whom moved quickly to call the company to account. As the investigation grew, Facebook delayed the Instagram service for children. On Thursday, Facebook’s global security chief Antigone Davis was questioned for more than two hours by lawmakers about the mental and emotional toll its services can take on children.
Inside Facebook, top executives are beset by the crisis, spilling over into parts of the company and disrupting its “youth group,” which oversees research and development for children’s products like Messenger Kids, According to interviews with a dozen current and former employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
To navigate the controversy, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have approved the decision to respond, but deliberately kept it out of the public eye, two people with knowledge of the meetings said. The company has leaned on its “strategic response” teams, which include communications and public relations staff.
People with knowledge of the company’s plans said the effort has been so time-consuming that many projects that were supposed to be completed around this time have been postponed.
But some of Facebook’s controls have at times overtaken its own workers. This week, the company reduced the internal research on which the journal partially based its articles, suggesting that the findings were limited and accurate. This angered some employees who worked on the research, three people said. They have congregated on group chats to call the characterization inappropriate, and some have threatened to leave privately.
In a group text message series shared with The New York Times, Facebook data scientists and researchers discuss how they are being “shamed” by their own employers. On the company’s message board, one employee wrote in a post this week: “They’re making fun of research.”
“Facebook’s UX research team is one of the best in the industry,” said Facebook engineer Sahar Masachi, who worked on electoral integrity and left the company in 2019. “Instead of attacking its employees, Facebook should empower integrity researchers to do their jobs more fully.”
The uproar is unlikely to subside. On Sunday, the whistleblower who leaked internal research and is a former Facebook employee is set to reveal his identity and discuss the documents on “60 Minutes.” She will then appear at a Senate hearing on Tuesday to testify about what she discovered while researching Facebook.
Facebook spokesman Kevin McAllister said the company is “under intense scrutiny, and it only makes sense that we’ve built teams to streamline internal and external responses, as well as accelerate those areas for those teams.” To help improve from where we need to improve.”
Since the journal’s article was published on September 13, Facebook’s “strategic response” teams, which have handled several crises in recent years, have been grappling with the responses. The teams, led by company veterans Tucker Bounds and Molly Cutler and working under Clegg’s direction, sought input from Facebook’s top researchers, the people said. Facebook then pushed back with a blog post that said the journal articles were inaccurate and lacked context.
Executives also convened to discuss the future of research at Facebook, two people briefed on the call. Some questioned whether the social network should continue to research its products as they said companies like Apple have not conducted similar user studies. Clegg supported continuing the research, the people said, and others eventually agreed.
Mosseri also reached out to employees to allay fears about the company’s products for teens. In an internal post about “teen wellness on Instagram” last month, he said he was “proud” that the company researched in a journal article, adding that “we invest heavily in safety and integrity.” (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) But some employees said the post shared with the Times did nothing to ease their concerns.
One employee wrote in a widely circulated internal note, “If Instagram can cause 3% of our users to report extreme negative thoughts (depression, anxiety, self-harm), I think it’s a problem worth looking into.” Is.” “Our policies to cover such research are creating difficult political, regulatory and legal problems for the company.”
Two employees said both Zuckerberg and Sandberg were informed and approved of decisions made over the past few weeks, but have been absent publicly to stay away from negative press.
Zuckerberg last week posted a video of him fencing with Olympic gold medalists, shot through the frame of the new sunglasses, which Facebook and Ray-Ban teamed up on to record videos. Is. On Wednesday, Sandberg posted a story on his Facebook page about small businesses in the United Arab Emirates.
Some projects have been rolled out while officials deal with the fallout. Two people with knowledge of the effort said the initiative to launch an election monitoring committee has been delayed.
On Wednesday, after meetings with “strategic response” teams and other officials, Facebook publicly released two research reports on which the journal partly based its stories ahead of Thursday’s Senate hearing.
Facebook interpreted the reports, appeared to downplay the results. Next to a slide in the research that said “teenagers struggling with mental health say Instagram makes it worse,” the company said the headline was accurate. Instead, it wrote, “The headline should be clarified: ‘Adolescents who have low life satisfaction say Instagram makes up their mental health or the way they are compared to teens who are satisfied with their lives’. I feel bad about myself.'”
Two employees said that after the annotation became public, Facebook researchers messaged each other in disbelief. Many felt that the notes threw him – and his methodology – under the bus, the people said.
Facebook has also moved to prevent future leaks.
(Finish optional trim.) A Facebook researcher said a colleague was contacted by the legal team last week and asked about a research report he published more than two years ago. The legal team is on the hunt for any potentially shoddy research that could be shared with journalists, he said.
He said his manager had advised him not to make any inquiries looking for specific terms on his old job or do anything that seemed suspicious.
Now, he said he was told, was a good time to take a vacation. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.