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Facebook misled investors on scope of misinformation problems, whistleblower says

Facebook misled investors on scope of misinformation problems, whistleblower says

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto

Since filing whistleblower complaints against Facebook last year, Frances Haugen hasn’t been sitting still. A report today says the Facebook (now Meta) whistleblower has filed two new complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission that allege the company internally acknowledged it was struggling with misinformation even while telling investors it had a handle on the problem.

Meta made “material misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors” regarding its attempts to fight misinformation on its platforms, according to redacted complaints that a congressional staffer shared with The Washington Post and other news outlets.

“Some investors simply will not want to invest in a company that fails to adequately address such misinformation and then engages in misstatements and omissions on the topic,” one complaint says.

Haugen’s new complaints say that while Facebook/Meta executives trumpeted their efforts to tamp down misinformation about climate change and COVID in earnings calls and elsewhere, internally, the company knew it was falling short.

Recent discoveries

As recently as the first quarter of 2021, Facebook employees discovered that climate misinformation ranked high when they searched for “climate change” in the Watch tab on Facebook. The second result was “climate misinfo,” which had been viewed more than 6.6 million times, an employee wrote.

Facebook also allegedly knew that its own heavily promoted Climate Science Information Center was a flop despite a slew of press releases and money thrown at it. Even among people who had visited the page, internal documents said that awareness of it was “very low,” according to the complaint.

Perhaps that’s because the company doesn’t seem to follow its own best practices when managing the page. News links are only updated every few days and are buried over halfway down the page. Plus, navigation is done through a clunky horizontal scroll instead of an infinite vertical feed like the rest of the site. The page has no “about” section or details to suggest that Facebook itself is running the page. Even the title is awkwardly stylized as the “Climate science center.” (Based on that alone, if I had stumbled across the page—and I haven’t—I would have thought it was a one-off effort by some crusading individual.) The page also doesn’t show a public follower count, and Facebook hasn’t even bothered to give it a header image.

The page was officially renamed the Climate Science Center in September 2021. At the time, it had 3.8 million followers. While almost 4 million followers would make many brands happy, for a company the size of Meta, that’s peanuts. Companies generally don’t rename products that are wildly popular.

Facebook does place labels on climate change content and reduces the distribution of content that its fact-checking partners deem false. But it typically doesn’t remove posts, as it does with COVID misinformation.

Yet despite removing some COVID-related misinformation, the whistleblower complaints allege that Facebook/Meta hasn’t lived up to its public statements there, either. An internal Facebook survey found that a third of people in the US said they saw misinformation related to COVID and voting, the complaint says, and an April 2020 spike in misinformation reports from users was traced to the topic of COVID.

Creative approach

Using whistleblower complaints to address the misinformation problem is “creative,” Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School and director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, told The Washington Post. “You cannot pass a law in the US banning disinformation,” he said. “So what can you do? You can hold the platforms accountable to promises they make. Those promises could be made to users, to the government, to shareholders.”

The strategy could work, given many investors’ appetites for focusing on environmental, social, and governance investment strategies (so-called ESG investors). 

For years, the SEC has told publicly traded companies that they need to make clear and accurate disclosures, Jane Norberg, a partner at Arnold & Porter who recently ran the SEC’s whistleblower program, told the Post. “If the company says one thing to investors but internal documents show that what they were saying is untrue, that could be something the SEC would look at,” she said.

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