Facebook struggles to quell outcry over Instagram’s effect on teens

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SAN FRANCISCO – Over the past few weeks, Facebook’s top executives have come together virtually for a series of emergency meetings.

At a meeting last weekend, a half-dozen managers – including Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, and Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs at Facebook – discussed the suspension of development of a Instagram service for children 13 and under, two people briefed on the meeting said. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg weighed in to approve the move, people said.

The meetings continued this week, with a larger group comprising Facebook’s “strategic response” teams, which are overseen by Mr Clegg and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO, the people said. Executives debated what to do internal research on teens and Instagram, they said, and decided to post some information but annotate it for added context.

Facebook has experienced an uproar in recent weeks, which the meetings were meant to quell. The uproar began after the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles last month, it showed Facebook was aware of the harms of its services, including teenage girls saying Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. The articles were based on a mine of Facebook documents, which were leaked by an unidentified whistleblower.

The revelations immediately sparked a wave of criticism from regulators and lawmakers, many of whom quickly called the company to account. As the review intensified, Facebook delayed the Instagram service for children. On Thursday, Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, was questioned for more than two hours by lawmakers about the mental and emotional toll her services could have on children.

Inside Facebook, senior executives have been engulfed by the crisis, with the fallout spreading to parts of the business and disrupting its “Youth Group,” which oversees the research and development of children’s products like Messenger. Kids, according to interviews with a dozen alumni and current ones. employees, who were not allowed to speak in public.

To navigate the controversy, Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg approved decisions on how to respond but deliberately stayed away from the public, two people familiar with the meetings said. The company relied on its “Strategic Response” teams, which include communications and public relations employees.

The effort took so long that several projects that were due to be completed around this time were postponed, people familiar with the company’s plans said.

But part of Facebook’s lockdown has sometimes backfired on its own employees. This week, the company downplayed the importance of internal research that The Journal had partly based its articles on, suggesting that the results were limited and imprecise. This angered some employees who had worked on the research, three people said. They gathered in panel discussions to denounce the characterizations as unfair, and some privately threatened to resign.

In a chain of group text messages shared with The New York Times, data scientists and researchers at Facebook explained how “embarrassed” they were about their own employer. On a company bulletin board, an employee wrote in an article this week: “They don’t care about research. “

“Facebook’s UX research team is one of the best in the business,” said Sahar Massachi, a Facebook engineer who worked on election integrity and left the company in 2019. “Instead of ‘attack their employees, Facebook should empower integrity researchers to do their jobs more fully.

The fury is unlikely to be extinguished. On Sunday, the whistleblower who leaked the internal investigation and who is a former Facebook employee is set to reveal her identity and discuss the documents on “60 Minutes.” She will then appear at a Senate hearing on Tuesday to testify to what she discovered while researching Facebook.

Kevin McAlister, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the business has been “under scrutiny, and it makes sense that we have put together teams to streamline internal and external responses, as well as for those teams to help accelerate fixes in areas where we need to improve.

Since the Journal articles were published on September 13, Facebook’s “strategic response” teams, which have handled numerous crises in recent years, have struggled with answers. The teams, led by company veterans Tucker Bounds and Molly Cutler and acting under the direction of Mr Clegg, sought advice from top Facebook researchers, the people said. Facebook then pushed back with blog posts however, the Journal’s articles were inaccurate and lacking in context.

Executives also met to discuss the future of Facebook search, two people briefed on the calls said. Some have questioned whether the social network should continue to research its products, as they said companies like Apple haven’t done similar user studies. Mr Clegg supported further research, people said, and others eventually agreed.

Mr Mosseri has also reached out to employees to allay fears over the company’s products aimed at teenagers. In an internal article published last month on “Teen Wellness on Instagram,” he said he was “proud” that the company had carried out the research presented in the Journal article and added “that we are investing heavily in security and integrity ”.

But some employees said the post, which was shared with The Times, did little to allay their concerns.

“If Instagram can get 3% of our users to report strongly negative thoughts (depression, anxiety, self-harm), I think it’s an issue worth looking into,” one employee wrote in a widely circulated internal memo. . “Our policies of concealing this type of research create difficult political, regulatory and legal problems for the company.”

Both Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg have been briefed and approved the decisions made in recent weeks, but have been publicly absent to steer clear of the negative press, two employees said.

Mr. Zuckerberg posted a video last week, of himself fencing with Olympic gold medalists, filmed through the frames of new sunglasses that Facebook and Ray-Ban have worked on together that can record video. Ms Sandberg posted a story about small businesses in the UAE on her Facebook on Wednesday page.

Some projects have been tabled while the executives deal with the spinoffs. An initiative to introduce an election monitoring committee has been delayed, two people familiar with the effort said.

On Wednesday, after meetings with the “Strategic Response” teams and other executives, Facebook made public two research reports on which the Journal had partly based its stories, before the Senate hearing Thursday.

Facebook annotated the reports, appearing to downplay the results. Next to a research slide that read “Teens With Mental Health Problems Say Instagram Is Making It Worse,” the company added that the title was imprecise. Instead, he wrote: “The headline should be clarified to be:” Teens who have lower life satisfaction are more likely to say Instagram makes their sanity or the way they feel worse than them. adolescents who are satisfied with their lives. “”

After the annotations became public, Facebook researchers exchanged disbelieving messages, two employees said. Many felt the notes threw them – and their methodology – under the bus, people said.

Facebook has also moved to stem future leaks.

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 appeared to be on the lookout for any potentially incriminating research that could be shared with reporters, he said.

His manager had advised him not to run queries for specific terms about his old job or do anything that looked suspicious, he said.

Now, he says, he has been told it is the right time to take a vacation.


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