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Facebook forced to rethink Groups

Paul Brislen, Editor. 02 February 2021, 5:00 am

Only a year after saying Facebook would pivot to more reliance on its Groups function and less focus on its newsfeed, founder Mark Zuckerberg is facing the realization that Groups have become a major source of misinformation, propaganda and paid disruption to the democratic process.

The Wall Street Journal has been told company data scientists warned executives that blatant misinformation and " calls to violence" were filling the majority of the platform's top performing civic groups.

"Enthusiastic calls for violence every day" filled on group with more than 58,000 members while another, ostensibly a fan site relating to then-President Donald Trump, was a "financially motivated" group set up and run by an Albanian team direction more than one million views a day towards fake news and provocative content.

While some of Facebook's attempts to rein in this kind of activity has been seen in public, such as the banning of repeat offenders like Trump and a number of far right extremists, much of the work has been taking place behind the scenes as the company struggled to bring these groups under control. Around 70% of the platform's most active groups were described as "non-recommendable" for issues such as hate, bullying and harassment. "Our existing integrity systems aren't addressing these issues," they wrote to the exec.

After the January 6 Capitol riot, Facebook began tackling these groups in earnest as part of an emergency response and has cancelled plans to resume recommending groups to users and will disable some tools that researchers say had pushed more extremist content and the rapid growth of some groups.

Groups was supposed to be Facebook's way of avoiding such politicised extremist content by prioritising content delivered by like-minded individuals. The problem appears to be that it worked exactly as intended, only instead of school parent teacher associations or assemblies of Civil War reenactments, far right extremists, neo-Nazis and anti-science disinformation groups have become the norm. The use of Groups by those eager to sew discord also appears to have caught Facebook executives by surprise, despite repeated warnings both from within and without the company. Groups could be set up as private with members-only content but without oversight they were used to spread lies and deceit.

Without accountability, many of these groups were able to call for violence and harassment of individuals without any sanction by the platform, despite its rules around hate speech and inciting violence.



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