Facebook's goal was to connect people. Instead, it drove users apart.
Leaked documents from Facebook provide a rare glimpse into decisions at the company, prompting the most intense scrutiny the social media giant has encountered since it launched in 2004. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of 17 news organizations, including USA TODAY.
"In the 13 or so years I have been covering Facebook, I have never seen anything like The Facebook Papers," said Jessica Guynn, senior tech write for USA TODAY. "The public is getting its first in-depth look under the hood of a platform that billions use every day."
I'm Alex, and this is Your Week. Today, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the British Parliament. In this edition: What you should know about misinformation and extremism on the social media platform, as well as what Facebook knew — and when.
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Facebook's experiment reveals how the company divided America
In 2019, a Facebook researcher created profiles for two women with similar interests: parenting, Christianity, civics and community. Both were 41 years old and from North Carolina.
The difference? Carol was conservative, and Karen was liberal.
Carol followed the official accounts for Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Fox News. Karen, who disliked Trump, followed a local news site, pages about North Carolina and the liberal advocacy group MoveOn. Then, Facebook's algorithms got to work.
Accepting recommendations for sites supportive of Trump led Carol to suggestions for a site called “Donald Trump is Jesus,” and another for QAnon. Karen was presented with anti-Trump pages, including one that posted an image showing an anus instead of Trump's mouth.
The two women were not real. They were created by a Facebook researcher to explore how the social media platform deepened political divides in the U.S. by recommending content rife with misinformation and extremism.
"What our reporters found when they dug into thousands of pages of documents was that Facebook’s own research set off alarm bells about how its algorithm was spreading divisive and dangerous content long before the disputed outcome of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol," Guynn said.
Yet the company largely failed to curtail its role in deepening the political divide.
"And it was that toxic content in people’s News Feed day in day out that was driving Americans apart and breaking up friendships and families," Guynn added.
Facebook says it’s winning the fight against hate speech targeting Black Americans. Its own research says otherwise.
What's real and what's fiction? USA TODAY has a team of experienced fact-checkers to set the record straight. Check out the latest.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Welcome to Your Week