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No more apologies: Facebook goes on the offensive to defend its image

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, approved a new initiative codenamed Project Amplify last month.

The initiative, which began in January with an internal meeting, had a specific objective: to use Facebook's News Feed, the site's most valuable digital real estate, to showcase positive stories about the social network.

The idea was that by promoting pro-Facebook news items — some of which were written by the company — the company's image would improve in the eyes of its users, according to three people familiar with the effort. However, the move was delicate because Facebook had not previously used the News Feed to bolster its own reputation. According to one attendee, several executives at the meeting were taken aback by the proposal.

Project Amplify was the culmination of a year-long effort by Facebook to aggressively reshape its image. Since that January meeting, the company has taken a multipronged approach to changing its narrative, distancing Mr. Zuckerberg from scandals, limiting outsiders' access to internal data, burying a potentially negative report about its content, and ramping up its own advertising to promote its brand.

The moves imply a significant shift in strategy. For years, Facebook publicly apologized in response to crises surrounding privacy, misinformation, and hate speech on its platform. Mr. Zuckerberg personally accepted responsibility for Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election on the site and has vocally defended online free speech. Additionally, Facebook promised to be transparent about its operations.

However, the drumbeat of criticism on a range of issues ranging from racist speech to vaccine misinformation has not abated. Disgruntled Facebook employees have fueled the controversy by speaking out against the company and leaking internal documents. The Wall Street Journal published articles last week based on such documents that revealed Facebook was aware of a large number of the harms it was causing.

Thus, after concluding that their methods had failed to quell criticism or win supporters, Facebook executives decided early this year to go on the offensive, according to six current and former employees who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

“They're realizing that no one else is going to defend them, so they're going to have to do it and say it themselves,” Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director, explained.

Facebook executives from its marketing, communications, policy, and integrity teams were involved in the changes. Alex Schultz, a 14-year company veteran who was named chief marketing officer last year, was also instrumental in the effort to reshape the company's image, according to five people who worked with him. However, three of the people said that Mr. Zuckerberg was responsible for at least one of the decisions and that he approved of all of them.

Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne denied that the company's strategy had shifted.

“The public deserves to know the steps we are taking to address the various issues confronting our company — and we intend to share them widely,” he said in a statement.

For years, Facebook executives grumbled about their company receiving more scrutiny than Google or Twitter, according to current and former employees. They attributed the increased attention to Facebook's increased exposure as a result of its apologies and the provision of access to internal data, the sources said.

As a result, executives convened a virtual meeting in January and discussed the possibility of a more aggressive defense, according to one attendee. The group discussed how to use the News Feed to promote positive news about the company, as well as how to run ads that linked to positive articles about Facebook. Additionally, they discussed how to define a pro-Facebook story, according to two participants.

That same month, the communications team discussed ways for executives to be less conciliatory in response to crises and agreed on a reduction in apologizing, according to two people familiar with the plan.

Mr. Zuckerberg, who had become embroiled in policy debates, including the 2020 presidential election, also desired to rebrand himself as an innovator, according to the sources. The communications team circulated a document in January outlining a strategy for distancing Mr. Zuckerberg from scandals, which included focusing his Facebook posts and media appearances on new products.

The document was previously reported on by The Information, a technology news website.

The effect was instantaneous. On Jan. 11, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer — not Mr. Zuckerberg — told Reuters that the week-old storming of the US Capitol had nothing to do with Facebook. When President Biden claimed in July that Facebook was "killing people" by spreading Covid-19 misinformation, Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president for integrity, disputed the claim in a blog post, noting that the White House had fallen short of its coronavirus vaccination goals.

Mr. Rosen wrote, "Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed."

Mr. Zuckerberg's personal Facebook and Instagram pages were updated shortly thereafter. Rather than address corporate scandals, Mr. Zuckerberg's recent posts included a video of himself riding across a lake while carrying an American flag, along with messages about new virtual reality and hardware devices.

Additionally, Facebook began limiting the availability of data that allowed academics and journalists to study the platform's operation. The company informed its team behind CrowdTangle, a tool that provides data on the engagement and popularity of Facebook posts, in April that it was separating. While the tool is still in existence, the individuals who worked on it have been transferred to other teams.

Mr. Schultz was partially motivated by his frustration with news coverage that used CrowdTangle data to demonstrate that Facebook was spreading misinformation, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

It was a setback for academics who relied on CrowdTangle. Cameron Hickey, a researcher specializing in misinformation at the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonprofit dedicated to civic engagement, said he was "particularly enraged" because he believed the CrowdTangle team was being punished for providing an unfiltered view of Facebook engagement.

According to two sources, Mr. Schultz argued that Facebook should publish its own data on the site's most popular content rather than providing access to tools like CrowdTangle. As a result, the company published a report in June detailing the most-viewed posts on Facebook in the first three months of 2021.

However, Facebook did not make the report public. When the policy communications team discovered that the most frequently viewed link for the period was a news story with a headline implying a doctor died after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, they feared the company would be punished for contributing to vaccine hesitancy, according to internal emails reviewed by The New York Times.

Mr. Schultz was a member of a group that voted to shelve the report a day before it was scheduled to be published, according to the emails. He later posted an internal message about his role at Facebook, which The Times reviewed, in which he stated, "I am concerned with protecting the company's reputation, but I am also concerned with rigor and transparency."

Additionally, Facebook worked to eliminate employee leaks. The communications department disabled comments on an internal forum used for company-wide announcements in July. “OUR ONE REQUEST: PLEASE DO NOT LEAK,” a post announcing the change stated.

Simultaneously, Facebook increased its marketing efforts. This summer, the company paid for television spots with the tagline "We change the game when we connect" to promote its community-building efforts. According to a recent earnings report, Facebook spent a record $6.1 billion on marketing and sales in the first half of this year, an increase of more than 8% over the same period last year.

Following that, the company further restricted academics' ability to conduct research on it by deactivating the Facebook accounts and pages of a group of New York University researchers. The researchers developed a browser extension that enabled them to view users' Facebook activity, which 16,000 people consented to use. The resulting data revealed that misleading political advertisements thrived on Facebook during the 2020 election and that users engaged more with right-wing misinformation than with a variety of other types of content.

Facebook stated in a blog post that the researchers from New York University violated rules governing the collection of user data, citing a 2012 privacy agreement it had with the Federal Trade Commission. The Federal Trade Commission later chastised Facebook for invoking the agreement, stating that it permitted good-faith research in the public interest.

Laura Edelson, the lead researcher at New York University, stated that Facebook blocked her due to the negative attention her work received. “When some people at Facebook consider the impact of these transparency efforts, all they see is negative public relations,” she explained.

This month, Facebook informed misinformation researchers that it had provided them with incomplete data on user interactions and engagement for two years as part of their work.

“It is incomprehensible that the majority of contemporary life, as it exists on Facebook, is not analyzable by researchers,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor who is drafting federal legislation to compel Facebook to share data with academics.

After Mr. Zuckerberg approved Project Amplify in August, the company tested the change in three US cities, according to two people familiar with the effort. While the company had previously used the News Feed to promote its own products and social causes, they stated that it had not used it to actively promote positive press about itself.

When the tests began, Facebook used a feature called Quick Promotes to insert stories about people and organizations that used the social network into users' News Feeds, they said. The public essentially sees posts with the Facebook logo that link to company-published stories and websites, as well as to third-party local news sites. One story promoted "Facebook's Latest Innovations for 2021" and discussed the company's efforts to achieve "100% renewable energy for our global operations."

“This is a demonstration of an informational unit that is clearly marked as coming from Facebook,” Mr. Osborne explained, adding that Project Amplify was "similar to corporate responsibility initiatives seen in other technology and consumer products."

Facebook's defiance of unflattering revelations has also continued, even in the absence of Mr. Zuckerberg. On Saturday, Nick Clegg, the company's vice president for global affairs, published a blog post criticizing the investigation's premise. He stated that the notion that Facebook executives had repeatedly disregarded warnings about potential problems was "completely false."

“These stories have purposefully misrepresented what we are attempting,” Mr. Clegg stated. He made no mention of the inaccuracies.

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