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October 27, 2021
What A Day
Facing The Facebook Papers with Mike Isaac

In This Episode

  • Facebook is in the crosshairs after a drumbeat of stories over the last few weeks all stemming from a set of documents called the Facebook Papers. Some of those documents detailed how the company prioritized engagement over user safety, and described its failure to moderate hate speech and misinformation across the world. We spoke to Mike Isaac, a tech correspondent at the New York Times who has been wading through all of this.
  • And in headlines: cyclones drenched the East and West Coasts, Congressional Democrats rushed to finalize the details of the climate and social policy bill, and Disneyland raised its prices this week.


Show Notes





Gideon Resnick: It’s Wednesday, October 27th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast that’s keeping a watchful eye on any unattended candy buckets on people’s stoops this weekend.


Gideon Resnick: Yes, if you or your child take more than one candy, trust us, this podcast will leap out from behind the bushes and scare you.


Josie Duffy Rice: On today’s show, powerful storms have struck both the East and West Coast, plus congressional Dems rush to make a deal on the multitrillion dollar climate and social spending package.


Gideon Resnick: But first, there has been a drumbeat of stories over the last few weeks, all stemming from a set of documents called the Facebook Papers. And so much has come out in such a short span of time that we wanted to catch you up, but also put it into context of the company’s future.


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s right. So this started when former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen disclosed this huge trove of documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A big group of news outlets have reviewed these redacted versions as well and pursued their own reporting. What has emerged is a really damaging set of stories about the company, some of which we’ve mentioned on the show, beginning with the Wall Street Journal report last month detailing how the company was aware that Instagram was creating a toxic environment for teenage girls.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that’s one of many. Other stories documented how the company has prioritized engagement over user safety, the actions and the lack of actions taken in the lead up to the January 6th insurrection, and Facebook’s failure to moderate hate speech and misinformation in other countries across the world.


Josie Duffy Rice: And that’s just some of what is known at this point. So for more on the Facebook papers, we spoke to Mike Isaac, a tech correspondent at The New York Times, who has been wading through all of this. And we started with what he had learned from going over the papers himself.


Mike Isaac: For me, the real fascinating thing when I first started digging into it was just how much of it is focused on some of these fundamental tools that make Facebook what it is, right? Like, if you look on your Facebook posts, in your feed there’s a little button that’s a share button. That lets you automatically share stuff out to your entire audience, right? And they found that people tend to like reshare posts from their friends at like some astonishing rates that, and most of the misinformation goes through that without people even really reading the article. Stuff that kind of makes sense or like how, I mean, we’re all in media, so like how on Twitter basically—since we don’t use Facebook—how on Twitter you can basically RT, retweet something after reading the headline and not really have any idea what the hell is actually in the story or whatever. And I think those dynamics kind of work the same on Facebook. Some of the existential questions are, do we basically slow how our platform works, slow it down, or keep pushing it forward? And I think it’s for them, for a company who has been focused on growth and dominance and keeping people engaged its entire existence, 17 years, asking itself to sort of put more friction into it is a really hard thing for them to do.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: Totally. There was part of this that was about Facebook’s own researchers repeatedly warning that the company was not equipped to address issues such as hate speech, misinformation, in languages other than English. For example, India, the company’s largest market, the documents revealed sort of how awful the spread of misinformation and hate speech on Facebook in India is. India has 22 officially recognized languages, and Facebook lacked expertise in all of them we’re led to believe. So let’s talk for a second about Facebook’s mission to quote unquote, “connect the entire world”—why are these shortcomings so massive here?


Mike Isaac: It’s a great, sort of, point, and I think that’s what Frances, the whistleblower, has been hammering. I think even internally, they were creating a system to say where are the worst fires and how do we put them out? So there was that. But at the same time, you know, Frances kept saying, Facebook is understaffed, it’s constantly understaffed—I feel like if you’re operating at the scale at which they are, which is literally serving three and a half billion people on the planet, you’re kind of always going to be understaffed fundamentally, right? And that’s not an excuse. It’s more just saying like, you’re always going to be behind the different ways that people interact on the planet. And that’s even just in English, right? So try start getting into every sort of sub-dialog that has different permutations or different meanings or, you know, written word is obviously different than speech, and I just feel like they are always going to be behind. And this is always why Mark points to A.I. as like the savior. You know, once we train it, it’s going to be: do what we can’t as people, basically.


Josie Duffy Rice: But given how many more resources Facebook has in the U.S. in particular, why is it still so bad here?


Mike Isaac: It’s a great point, especially because what we see Facebook do now and what they will continue to do is tout these numbers like we have stopped—I’m making these numbers up—but like 50 million instances of hate speech. Or we have gone from stopping 20% of hate speech to 90%, right? And sort of throwing out these numbers that are crazy. You’re like, oh, wow, they’re doing really well, you know, that’s crazy. When you are operating at a global scale, even a small percentage point is a lot of fucking speech, right? Or a lot of like, content. And so the thing that they won’t ever say, but I think is implicit, is this idea that they’re never going to get it all so they’re going to do kind of like the best that they can to get most of it, but there’s still going to be some percentage out there. I think the other thing that’s really important is even if you get most of that speech, a small amount of really toxic material can have an outsized effect, right? So if I’m one guy saying hateful shit and spreading it across the internet, I can have like a really large effect based on how Facebook is built and based on how much reach I give myself, whether it’s through paid ads or, you know, virality or whatever. So they do kind of a sleight of hand with numbers and how they sort of defend themselves that is disingenuous.


Gideon Resnick: There was this anecdote about a tester, this Facebook user named Carol Smith back in 2019. She wasn’t actually a person, she was a test profile created by an engineer. We’re told that the algorithm was feeding increasingly extremist content to her. So I guess the question is like, what do we make of Facebook pushing users into these sort of like quote unquote, “rabbit holes” like that over and over?


Mike Isaac: I mean, it just sort of shows if you’re optimizing for a certain outcome, which is typically increased engagement or adding more friends or sort of being more connected to the network, and the stuff that performs the best is hateful or enraging, you know, whether that’s like political content that makes you mad or gets you into fights with your friends and family, or stuff that invokes a really emotional response, like it’s not a shock that people are going to, or these test accounts are going to, sort of gravitate to that over time, you know? Is there a way to account for that or to even sort of fix that, and can you without sort of breaking how Facebook works? Or is that the point, you should break Facebook works, you know?


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Mike Isaac: So and like Facebook likes to argue, you know, you control your own feed, you don’t have to do X, Y and Z, but when the network is built with so many incentives into pushing you into this stuff, your agency starts to go away or it makes it much more difficult to fight against it. You know?


Gideon Resnick: What is your sense of what is going to happen next year? Like, are we talking about just sort of increasingly damaging stories about the company that just continue to come out until the end of time? Or are we talking about more whistleblowers? Like what happens here?


Mike Isaac: I mean, I was thinking about this earlier. And part of me wonders if anything happens, you know? Like in Congress right now, I’ve not seen any discussion of any substantive bill or action. It’s mostly using Facebook as sort of a bipartisan punching bag and then saying, we’re going to regulate you, and Facebook saying, yes, please do, and then saying, we’re going to regulate you, I swear. But like it’s not, not like happening. And the other thing I wonder, I’m curious about you all, but like, are people getting like Facebooked out, you know? Like, is it sort of washing over everyone with like, OK, I get it, they’re bad, Mark Zuckerberg is like evil lizard person or whatever the meme is on Facebook, basically? Like, is this going to be the thing I hear all the time and do people tune out? And like, I don’t know, I’m not thinking in the short term there’s any huge changes. Except maybe they change their name.


Josie Duffy Rice: That is New York Times tech correspondent Mike Isaac. He is also the author of the book “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.” And if you’ve read a crazy tech story in the last few years, there’s a very good chance that Isaac wrote it.


Gideon Resnick: That is true. We’re going to link to Isaac’s work in the show notes so that you can read more of what he does, and we’ll keep track of this story as it develops, but that is the latest for now. It’s Wednesday, WAD squad, and today we’re doing a segment called “No Context Bad Vibes.”


[deep distorted voice] No context, bad vibes.


Josie Duffy Rice: [laughs] I will never get over the sound effects.


Gideon Resnick: That is also the sound of what will happen if you take more than one candy. Take a listen to today’s clip:


[clip of Rep. Madison Cawthorn] Madam Speaker, today I am calling for the creation of a formal commission to investigate the true origin of COVID-19, the role Fauci played in its creation, the false statements he made to members of Congress under oath, and why the hell Americans are funding the torture of puppies in Africa. Americans deserve the truth, and this demon doctor must never be allowed to escape justice. With that, I yield back.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, with just that, he, he yields back, you know, just a few things on his mind. That was Congressman Madison Cawthorn going for the record yesterday for the most COVID-19 misinformation contained in a single breath. He did also name check my favorite death metal band, Demon Doctor, as well as my favorite true crime podcast, Demon Doctor. The part about puppy experiments, by the way, refers to a recent push by right-wing media to implicate Fauci in a study he had nothing to do with. So Josie, what are your thoughts on this clip?


Josie Duffy Rice: I feel just great about the fact that a member of Congress sounds like any unhinged Facebook post you might stumble upon on any given day. It feels good. It feels healthy. It feels great. No notes. What about you, Gideon?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it is good that anything that you see online can be verbalized in people who have a huge amount of power. I also want to say this is an argument against letting everybody on to debate team, because clearly, Mr. Cawthorn learned some of the tactics of speaking so quickly with no breaths from some formal debate training. And all I’m saying is for every good debate kid that you know, there may be a Madison. So that’s just a warning. That was No Context, Bad Vibes.


[deep distorted voice] No context, bad vibes.


Gideon Resnick: We’ll be back after some ads.


Josie Duffy Rice: [laughs] oh, man.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: Both the East and West Coast of the country were drenched by two powerful cyclones in recent days. Right now a nor’easter is churning along the eastern seaboard. Called that because the winds mostly come from the northeast, it is blowing gusts up to 60 miles per hour. As of record time, both New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency, and places like New York City expected up to five inches of rain by the time the storm passes. Meanwhile, the West Coast is picking up the debris after being swept by a bomb cyclone, referring to how it grew quickly like a bomb. We have a lot of meteorological glossary terms here that we are informing you with. Strong winds brought down many trees, one of which killed two people in Fall City, Washington, on Sunday, when it fell on their car. The cyclone also synced up with an atmospheric river, a long line of moisture in the air, to soak the region. In Sacramento, for example, nearly five and a half inches of rain came down in a 24-hour period. That broke a record that was set in 1880. When we recorded on Tuesday night, over 50,000 customers were without power on both coasts. And these powerful storms hit the U.S. just days before a climate conference of world leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, which starts on Sunday.


Josie Duffy Rice: Congressional Democrats are rushing to finalize the details of the multitrillion dollar climate and social policy bill so the other trillion infrastructure bill can go up for a vote this week. One key point is how to pay for the first one, and an idea that Senate Dems have is to get it from billionaires with a tax on rising stock values. Analysts say it could bring in up to half a trillion dollars over 10 years, more than half of it from just TEN PEOPLE, including Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Without that extra cash, those guys might have to start spending time on Earth instead of always retreating to their second homes, which are in space.


Gideon Resnick: Aw, sad.


Josie Duffy Rice: I know it’s really hard for them. Finding a revenue stream could be key for Dems in getting the support of moderate Dems. Senator Kyrsten Sinema though publicly voiced support for another payment route: a 15% corporate minimum tax. But she is jeopardizing ambitious plans to bolster both Medicare and Medicaid. Sinema is siding with pharmaceutical lobbyists to oppose a proposal that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prescription prices. Also on the chopping block is a plan that would have expanded Medicaid in 12 states that refuse to extend it when the ACA was passed.


Gideon Resnick: I don’t want to hear more stuff that’s on the chopping block. I want to hear the adding block, you know?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, well you know, Gideon, when the world is burning or freezing from climate change, I do think we’ll just be really glad that we didn’t pass that expensive infrastructure bill a few years back.


Gideon Resnick: I think that’s right. I think that’s the takeaway.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s really important. You know?


Gideon Resnick: The private school that has branded itself as a safe place to be afraid of vaccines has backtracked on its most outrageous policy: Miami’s Centner Academy will not require students to stay at home for 30 days after getting a vaccine dose, after Florida’s education department said that enforcing that policy could jeopardize their funding. Even in defeat, the school officials kept their heads held high. The co-founder said quote, “our decision not to enact the 30-day at home quarantine was an easy one, as no parents expressed interest in getting the coronavirus vaccine following the policy announcement.” See that, Florida Education Department? No one wants your stupid, safe medications anyway. Also, a more serious update on the conservative war on kids at schools: Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill yesterday that will ban transgender kids from participating in sports consistent with their gender. Under the bill, students must play on teams that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificate at or near their time of birth. The bill is set to go into effect on January 18th of next year.


Josie Duffy Rice: Disneyland raised its prices this week so that admission to one park on the busiest days cost a $164. That’s twice what Mickey got paid to act in his first Disney movie. In 2000, the same ticket cost $42, but prices have been rising steadily, and executives say this latest increase owes to a post-pandemic surge in demand. You can still go to theme parks on a budget, though, and it might even help boost your finances: MEL magazine ran an article this week about a guy who works near Southern California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain and has used a $150 annual all-access pass to eat almost all his meals at the park for the past seven years. The pass comes with two daily meals and a snack, allowing this hero of late-stage capitalism to save up enough money to pay off his student loans and buy a house. He did admit that the options aren’t always great, and when he’s really strapped for time, he has to settle for something he calls chicken balls. Of the chicken balls, he said quote, “I estimate I got them around 150 times, and at five per meal, that’s around 750 balls. I don’t know that I could ever eat them again.”


Gideon Resnick: The good news for this guy is like, he’s also going to get paid by some sort of scientific research team to find out what happens when you eat 750 chicken balls. So he is netting in the long run, financially.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. He is going to be Six Flags’ main spokesperson. He’s going to be like the Six Flags guy, the annoying one, but he’s not going to be annoying. You know the little [makes noises]?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. But he’s, when that guy goes, this guy’s going to do dances, but he’s going to be juggling chicken balls. We just, we have a few pitches for California Six Flags, Magic Mountain.


Josie Duffy Rice: I bet nobody listening thought they were going to hear the term chicken balls on this podcast, and we are here to surprise you.


Gideon Resnick: We are.


Josie Duffy Rice: Every single day.


Gideon Resnick: And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, kick Madison Cawthorn types off debate teams, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just the nutritional facts on chicken balls like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And follow the rules on unattended candy buckets!


Gideon Resnick: If I see two Reese’s Cups missing, I will find you.


Josie Duffy Rice: I will find you, small child, and take your candy.


Gideon Resnick: Exactly. Exactly right. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lance. Jazzi Marine is our associate producer. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and myself. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.