The Social Media Report #25: research into disinformation on Facebook brings bans for NYU students
As social networks announce record highs, they predict turbulence ahead
A perfect storm is brewing in social media, with unprecedented new highs in the user data being announced by the social networks, they are also warning of a coming slowdown. But why? It’s not that they’re reaching saturation, as they might have people imagine. To see the turbulence coming for the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and others, just look in a different direction, as the pencils are now sharpened in Congress, Whitehall and in Brussels.
In this edition of The Social Media Report, I review the most recently announced data from the social networks, the newly-announced plans by governments to regulate disinformation and harmful content, and the attempts from independent institutions, the most notable being NYU, to explore how social networks have been misused at scale.
I also have as usual my must-read articles of the week. Subscribe below if you’ve been sent this, and you’ll get every edition soon as it’s out.
A greater understanding of how organised disinformation campaigns permeate on social media will benefit society. From general and presidential election interference, to more current anti-vax movements which I covered in June this year, large scale, heavily funded, organised social media cyber attacks are happening in plain sight, and research into how they are happening is of vital importance to the public.
This week, researchers from New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project were suspended from Facebook. This was for their work on making data about political disinformation on Facebook more transparent and more widely covered. Facebook’s suspension of the researchers has sent ripples across the industry.
NYU’s work on making social media safer had gathered an influential audience. Nieman Labs calls it one of the best sources available to understand organised interference in society using social media. If you ask me, this kind of high profile research is critical to public safety. So why did Facebook do it?
According to the social network, NYU’s researchers were scraping Facebook data at scale in ways that are not allowed, according to terms and conditions. Facebook is claiming that this research essentially goes against user privacy.
NYU’s work is merely scraping the tip of the iceberg. Their team and the AdObserver project is looking at the use of advertising. More widely across social media, human-run fake Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and forum profiles spread disinformation at scale, and in my team’s research of this issue (highlights here) we are seeing equal if not higher levels of disinformation campaigns on organic social media as opposed to in ads.
The NYU researchers will not suffer too great a setback from Facebook’s block of their accounts I’m sure, but I hope that their gaze widens as they consider the way around this.
Alongside the publicity that research into disinformation is receiving, regulators are closing in. The Biden administration declared war on social media disinformation, accusing Facebook of killing people by allowing fake news campaigns to flow through its servers. Independent research had shown Americans who rely on Facebook for their news are less likely to get vaccinated. Separately, Ofcom has appointed its new ‘disinformation auditor’, and, the UK’s government has now announced its plans through the Digital Markets Unit for digital markets regulation, to protect consumers mainly through helping to clamp down on monopolistic activities. Which brings us on to the other pieces of news to come from social media in recent weeks, namely the increasing size of the largest of the social networks.
Facebook has announced over 3.51 billion active users of its family of products. This means that between Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp ‘family’ of products, the company Facebook has a ‘monthly active people’ total of 3.51bn users, up 12% in the last year. Facebook also now has over 63,000 employees, that’s over 10,000 new staff added to the company in the last year - approx 20 new hires every day have been joining the company. Just under half of the world’s population uses Facebook’s family of apps, more than any other app or social network.
Facebook warned of a coming slowdown however, with analysts referring to changing world dynamics due to lockdowns ending, regulatory changes and privacy changes such as those being brought about by Apple. Reports in the Financial Times cite disinformation as a contributing factor to the possible Facebook slowdown. Time will tell just how much of an impact regulation will have, and what the social networks will look like as society’s understanding of the current disinformation situation improves.
My must reads
Here are some of the stories that I have been reading.
The Federal Trade Commission intervenes in FB’s NYU ban: statement from the bureau chief calls out Facebook’s actions as disappointing.
Instagram to make teen accounts private by default: following in TikTok’s footsteps from earlier in the year.
Instagram and Facebook to limit teen targeting: after reports that alcohol brands have been able to target teens, advertisers on Instagram, Facebook and Messenger will no longer be able to market to under 18s based on their interests.
How Reddit self-moderates: a look at a different way to police content online from the Reddit ‘moderation army’.
TikTok trials Stories: copies wholeheartedly, er, everyone else.
Twitter trashes Stories: deciding that its ‘Fleets’ don’t really work on Twitter, the social network admirably ditches the format.
Snapchat moves into local discovery: Snap Maps to give recommendations on where to eat and drink.
Metaverse: the thing discussed most notably by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s earnings briefing last month was the company’s big focus on ‘the metaverse’ - ie virtual and augmented reality.
An interview in Wired with Middle East social media rights and advocacy group on censorship in the region: Mona Shtaya of 7amleh talks about silencing of Palestinians earlier in the year on social media.
NY Times interviews influential lawmaker on social media regulation: “Representative David Cicilline's bipartisan package takes aim at tech companies and would be the biggest antitrust reform in decades.”
How artists and game makers are pushing virtual worlds such as Roblox to new levels: The Verge interviews a range of creators.
Former FB integrity head talks about employee-silencing: goes against transparency and promotes ‘unchecked power’ says Yael Eisenstat.
Dispo lands big funding and ‘second shot at being an Instagram killer’: great to see one of my favourite apps doing well.
Email and productivity app does VC pitches differently: British founder of Superhuman talks of how he raised $75m by doing only one-on-one chats, no big pitches.
Record number of unicorns: the FT reports that the number of tech startups valued at $1bn+ has grown at a record pace this year, led by the US and Asia.
Wellness apps booming: London wellness app developer secures $100m series B funding.
Amazon drone deliveries dropping: Wired looks at the ‘slow collapse’ and redundancies.
Reducing screen time: a very topical issue is how platforms promote balance. China’s Tencent says that it will be limiting playing time on its big title, Honor of Kings down to one hour a day and not at all at night for under-18s.
How Facebook is using AI to understand encrypted information without unencrypting it: interesting, as messages are encrypted.
How tech companies are achieving flexible work: a huge debate right now, with some organisations allowing work from home, some not, and others doing a half and half, Cal Newport argues in The New Yorker that companies really need to change how work is done and how it is managed (which I wholeheartedly agree with).
Buzzing to have been awarded a few trophies since the last edition of this newsletter. Battenhall was named Social Media Consultancy of the Year 2021 at the Global Digital Excellence Awards and the UK Digital Growth Awards.
There’s a number of vacancies I’m hiring for in our team as we expand. Details here.
The Social Media Report is written by Drew Benvie, founder & CEO of Battenhall.