Recently revealed attempts by web giant Facebook to promote positive news stories about itself have been branded “chilling”, “desperate” and “disturbing”. Campaigners are now urging lawmakers to take action against the huge advertising and social media platform.

The calls to action follow a week in which it was revealed that Menlo Park allegedly buried internal reports on harm caused to society and individuals, in order to protect its bottom line.

The News Feed initiative was part of Project Amplify, a strategy signed off by Mark Zuckerberg himself to improve the tech titan’s tarnished brand, according to a The New York Times scoop. Not only did the trial see the network present positive stories about itself from outside sources to its users: Facebook also promoted stories written by the company itself.

The NYT has spoken with individuals familiar with the effort, saying the initiative had first been presented to several executives at a January meeting.

“It’s obviously very disturbing,” Joe Westby, deputy director at Amnesty Tech, tells Verdict. “It really confirms something that we’ve been talking about for a while, which is the frankly quite chilling power that Facebook has over our online information ecosystem and then being able to shape what people see, with really profound impact on a range of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.”

He argues that Facebook picking stories that show the platform in a good light could lead to “real human rights harms”, especially in developing countries where the California-headquartered company is the leading internet provider.

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Others suggested that Project Amplify indicate that Facebook is doubling down on push to wash off its blemished reputation. However, they are sceptical about how effective the push would actually be.

“Project Amplify is a desperate attempt to heal the company’s public image but it remains to be seen whether this initiative will work,” Laura Petrone, principal analyst in the thematic team at GlobalData, tells Verdict.

Project Amplify latest part of Facebook backlash

“This accusation is the latest in a string of controversies about how Facebook delivers its newsfeed and handles user data,” Mark Brill, senior lecturer in Future Media at Birmingham City University, tells Verdict.

Over the years, Facebook has faced intense scrutiny over its failure to address the spread of hate speech, conspiracy theories, privacy violations and vaccination misinformation. It has also faced several antitrust cases and the threat of inbound regulations aimed at reeling in the power of Big Tech companies.

However, where Zuckerberg and his leadership team have previously responded with public apologies – to privacy scandals and accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, for instance – the $1tn titan has now changed its tune. Facebook experimenting with its News Feed as part of Project Amplify was, according to The New York Times, indicative of Menlo Park having adopted a tougher stance against criticism.

The company’s more aggressive approach also include burying research about its failure to suppress Covid-19 conspiracies and cutting off researchers investigating the impact of political ads on the platform.

In July, after the White House had grown increasingly critical of social media giants’ inability to halt the spread of coronavirus misinformation on their networks, US President Joe Biden said that Facebook was “killing people” by allowing vaccine lies to spread on its platform.

In a uncharacteristically vitriolic response, Facebook published a blog post saying that the Biden administration was just angry because it had missed its goal of jabbing 70% of Americans by 4 July.

“Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed,” Facebook, noting that 85% of its US users wanted to be or had been vaccinated.

It has also increased its advertisement budget. In the first half of 2021, Facebook spent $6.1bn on marketing and sales, representing a 8% increase from the year before.

Facebook denies Project Amplify report

When reached by Verdict, Facebook’s media team directed us to a twitter thread by Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson quoted in The New York Times article. In the thread, he denies the January meeting at which Project Amplify took shape, referenced by the newspaper, actually occurred.

He writes that Facebook only “ran a small test of an informational unit on Facebook in three cities” and that posts by Facebook had been “clearly labelled” as such.

“There is nothing surprising about a New York Times story that attempts to villainize Facebook for telling its side of the story — but this article includes such clear falsehoods that were clearly refuted that even we are surprised,” he continues.

“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?”

Bad press week

The news about Project Amplify is the latest in a long string of setbacks for Facebook. Over the past five years, scrutiny over its power, the impact it has on society and its ability to choke competition have become subject of media reports, regulatory proposals and congressional grillings.

Over the past week, many of these issues have come to a head after The Wall Street Journal published an explosive string of stories about Facebook. The publication alleged that internal documents showed that Facebook was aware of but had ignored studies revealing how it harmed teenagers and that changes to Facebook’s algorithms had resulted in an angrier environment on the platform.

One story suggested that Facebook’s internal XChange system, which was originally designed to be a quality control measure, effectively exempted elite users from enforcement policies normal users are subject to. Because Facebook gives celebrities carte blanche to post whatever they want, Brazilian footballer Neymar could post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.

The Wall Street Journal also accused Facebook of failing to take action against drug cartels and traffickers using the platform despite employees flagging the problem. The newspaper also reported that anti-vaxxers had been able to hijack Facebook’s vaccination information tools to peddle conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

Over the weekend, the UK’s former deputy prime minister turned Facebook mouthpiece, Nick Clegg, publicly denied the findings of The Wall Street Journal reports that suggested that the social network “willfully ignores [research] if the findings are inconvenient for the company”.

Clegg, who has been Facebook’s vice president of global affairs since 2018, said the newspaper’s reports “contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”

This week, Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board is demanding answers on the XCheck system, saying it would include Menlo Park’s answers in its October report.

Call for politicians to do more

Despite these reports, market analysts and human rights advocates are sceptical about Facebook changing its ways unless politicians and regulators step in.

“Facebook’s flaws are rooted in the company’s business model, that is based on ad-targeting and prioritises profit over quality of content and respect for the user’s privacy,” Petrone says.

Regulators and lawmakers are seemingly listening. In the US, several bipartisan bills aimed at restricting Big Tech firms’ power are currently making their way through the corridors of Capitol Hill.

Similarly, the European Commission is hard at work pushing through the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, two pieces of legislation that are aiming to break up Facebook, Google, Amazon and other dominant players’ market chokeholds.

Westby is optimistic about these initiatives, saying they represent “a huge opportunity to tackle some of the harms of these these dominant platforms”, but that legislators must ensure that Facebook and its peers are not left to self-regulate.

“We cannot remain in the dark about how the algorithmic systems underpinning these platforms are taking decisions about what people see with real world harms,” he says. “We cannot leave that in the dark. And we cannot leave it up to Facebook and other companies to self-regulate. As these revelations show, even when they do the research to find out the harms they they don’t necessarily follow their own findings, if it’s inconvenient to their business model.”

Raegan MacDonald, Mozilla’s director of public policy, adds: “Project Amplify shows how little we know about Facebook and how they are able to influence people through the product. This is why the Digital Services Act and its call for more transparency of and from social media platforms is so critical. The DSA will provide the tools to properly scrutinise the ways in which platforms like Facebook shape online content experiences and crucially, give us the prerequisites we need to hold them to account for harmful outcomes.”