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Facebook Employees Protest Political Ads Policy in Letter to Zuckerberg

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  • More than 250 Facebook workers have signed a letter written by fellow employees opposing the company’s decision to let politicians post content that includes false information.
  • The letter represents a significant shift for Facebook, where employees have remained relatively quiet in public about internal problems, even as workers at other tech companies have recently held protests over a number of issues.
  • The letter was praised by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom have been vocal critics of the policy. 
  • Separately, a man in California filed to run for governor just so he could run fake ads.

Facebook Employee Letter

Facebook employees have written a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top executives in protest of the platform’s new rule that allows politicians to post anything they want, including false information.

According to The New York Times, which obtained a copy of the letter Monday, the message has been posted for two weeks on Facebook Workplace, the company’s internal communication board for employees.

Several sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Times that more than 250 employees have signed the message.

In the letter, the employees say that Facebook is a place of free expression, but they are worried that the policy would undo all the work they have done since the 2016 election to fight misinformation.

“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing,” the workers wrote. “Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for.”

“We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”

The employees go on to say they believe the policy has the potential to “increase distrust in our platform” and that it “communicates that we are OK profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in or seeking positions of power.”

They continue that the policy could “undo integrity product work” that teams had done to prepare for the 2020 election, adding, “this policy has the potential to continue to cause harm in coming elections around the world.”

Previous coverage on what Facebook is doing to prepare for 2020.

The letter then outlines six proposals for improvement, such as holding all ads to the same standard, restricting political ads from being targeted to custom audiences, observing election silence periods, setting joint ad spending caps for both politicians and Political Action Committees (PACs), and other policies aimed at generally making Facebook’s policies for political ads clearer.

The Facebook employees close the letter saying they want to have an open dialogue and see actual change, and that they “look forward to working towards solutions together.”

A First for Facebook

The letter represents a significant change for Facebook for a number of reasons.

First of all, it shows that even some of the people who work at Facebook are opposed to the company’s political speech policy— and so much so that they are willing to speak out.

That in of itself is big because internal resistance at Facebook is quite uncommon. 

Facebook has not usually been included in the recent wave of internal revolts and protests at other big tech companies, like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, where employees have held mass protests against their companies’ impact on climate change, sexual harassment policies, and contracts with military and law enforcement bodies.

Notably, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he would accelerate the company’s climate goals in September. The move came after Amazon workers, who for years had pressured Bezos to do more to address the company’s carbon footprint, planned a 1,700 worker walkout.

But Facebook simply has not engaged in the same kind of initiatives, at least publicly. 

Facebook is well known for having a strong sense of mission and a tight-knit corporate culture among its rank and file employees. As a result, dissatisfaction among employees is rarely put in public view.

As VICE points out, most of the time Facebook employees have engaged in activism, it is “tacked onto activist movements at other companies.”

For example, in May 2018, Facebook workers joined over 1,000 Google employees in staging a sit-in to protest retaliation against employee activism.

Now, many experts are saying that the fact that Facebook employees have written this letter and that others have signed it could signal a big change for Facebook and its culture.

Especially because with sticky situations like this, there is always the fear among employees of their company retaliating against them. 

Politicians Response to Policy

The letter and the risk that employees who support it are taking has not gone unnoticed.

Politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) applauded the Facebook employees’ efforts.

“Courageous workers at Facebook are now standing up to the corporation’s leadership, challenging Zuckerberg’s disturbing policy on allowing paid, targeted disinformation ads in the 2020 election,” she wrote on Twitter.

Several senators also chimed in, including 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

“Facebook’s own employees know just how dangerous their policy allowing politicians to lie in political ads will be for our democracy,” Warren tweeted. “Mark Zuckerberg should listen to them—and I applaud their brave efforts to hold their own company accountable.”

Both Ocasio-Cortez and Warren have been arguably some of the most vocal critics of the new Facebook policy.

A few weeks ago Warren ran a fake ad that said Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump in the 2020 election.

The ad later went on the explain that this is not true, but added, “What Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.”

Source: The Hill

Similarly, last week, a clip of Ocasio-Cortez questioning Zuckerberg about the policy at a Congressional hearing went viral.

“Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?” the Congresswoman asked, referring to her sweeping plan to address climate change that has been largely opposed by Republicans.

“Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head,” Zuckerberg responded. “I think probably?” 

An Unusual Political Move

Days later, a PAC run by Adriel Hampton, a political activist who runs a marketing firm in San Francisco, tested Ocasio-Cortez’s question by running an ad that spliced together audio clips of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) so it sounded like he was saying he supported the Green New Deal.

Facebook later said that it had removed the ad, most likely due to the fact that PACs and independent organizations are not individual politicians, so the policy exempting political figures does not apply to them.

But that did not stop Hampton, who on Monday formally registered as a candidate for governor of California just so he can run false Facebook ads.

“The genesis of this campaign is social media regulation and to ensure there is not an exemption in fact-checking specifically for politicians like Donald Trump who like to lie online,” Hampton told CNN.  

“I think social media is incredibly powerful,” he continued. “I believe that Facebook has the power to shift elections.”

Facebook, for its part, responded to the letter in a statement to the media. 

“Facebook’s culture is built on openness, so we appreciate our employees voicing their thoughts on this important topic,” a Facebook spokesperson said.  “We remain committed to not censoring political speech, and will continue exploring additional steps we can take to bring increased transparency to political ads.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (VICE) (Business Insider

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Uber Forks Over $19 Million in Fine for Misleading Australian Riders

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The penalty is just the latest in a string of lawsuits going back years.


Uber Gets Fined

Uber has agreed to pay a $19 million fine after being sued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for making false or misleading statements in its app.

The first offense stems from a company policy that allows users to cancel their ride at no cost up to five minutes after the driver has accepted the trip. Despite the terms, between at least December 2017 and September 2021, over two million Australians who wanted to cancel their ride were nevertheless warned that they may be charged a small fee for doing so.

Uber said in a statement that almost all of those users decided to cancel their trips despite the warnings.

The cancellation message has since been changed to: “You won’t be charged a cancellation fee.”

The second offense, occurring between June 2018 and August 2020, involved the company showing customers in Sydney inflated estimates of taxi fares on the app.

The commission said that Uber did not ensure the algorithm used to calculate the prices was accurate, leading to actual fares almost always being higher than estimated ones.

The taxi fare feature was removed in August 2020.

A Troubled Legal History

Uber has been sued for misleading its users or unfairly charging customers in the past.

In 2016, the company paid California-based prosecutors up to $25 million for misleading riders about the safety of its service.

An investigation at the time found that at least 25 of Uber’s approved drivers had serious criminal convictions including identity theft, burglary, child sex offenses and even one murder charge, despite background checks.

In 2017, the company also settled a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $20 million after it misled drivers about how much money they could earn.

In November 2021, the Justice Department sued the company for allegedly charging disabled customers a wait-time fee even though they needed more time to get in the car, then refused to refund them.

Later the same month, a class-action lawsuit in New York alleged that Uber charged riders a final price higher than the upfront price listed when they ordered the ride.

See what others are saying: (ABC) (NASDAQ) (Los Angeles Times)

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Report Finds That Instagram Promotes Pro-Eating Disorder Content to 20 Million Users, Including Children

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According to the study, even users hoping to recover were given eating disorder content because they were “still in Instagram’s algorithmically curated bubble.”


Instagram Promotes Eating Disorder Content

Instagram promotes pro-eating disorder content to millions of its users, including children as young as nine-years-old, according to a Thursday report from the child advocacy non-profit group Fairplay.

The report, titled “Designing for Disorder: Instagram’s Pro-eating Disorder Bubble,” studied what it called an eating disorder “bubble,” which consisted of nearly 90,000 accounts that reached 20 million unique users. The average age of the bubble was 19, but researchers found users aged nine- and 10-years-old that followed three or more of these accounts. Roughly one-third of those in the bubble were underage. 

According to Fairplay, Instagram’s parent company Meta derives $2 million in revenue a year from the bubble and another $228 million from those who follow it. 

“In addition to being profitable, this bubble is also undeniably harmful,” the report said. “Algorithms are profiling children and teens to serve them images, memes and videos encouraging restrictive diets and extreme weight loss.”

“Meta’s pro-eating disorder bubble is not an isolated incident nor an awful accident,” it continued. “Rather it is an example of how, without appropriate checks and balances, Meta systematically puts profit ahead of young people’s safety and wellbeing.”

Researchers identified the bubble by first looking at 153 seed accounts with over 1,000 followers that posted content celebrating eating disorders. Some used phrases like “thinspiration” or other slang terms like “ana” and “mia” to refer to specific eating disorders. Others included an underweight body mass index in their bios. 

Those seed accounts alone had roughly 2.3 million collective followers, 1.6 million of which were unique. Of those unique users, researchers looked at how many seed accounts each followed to determine that nearly 90,000 accounts were part of the eating disorder bubble. Those accounts totaled over 28 million followers, 20 million of which were unique.

These pages posted content ranging from memes and photos of extreme thinness to screenshots of progress on calorie counting apps. One user said they were on their third day of eating just 300 calories. 

Others, including children under the age of 13, put their current weights and goal weights in their account bios. Some wrote that they “hate food” or were “starving for perfection.”

Content’s Impact on Children

Fairplay claimed that many of those in the bubble wanted to recover but were essentially trapped in Instagram’s algorithm. 

“Many of the biographies of users in the bubble talk about wanting to or being in recovery, wanting to get ‘better’, to ‘heal’ or being aware of how unwell they were,” the report said. “However, these users are still in Instagram’s algorithmically curated bubble. They will still be feeding content from other accounts in the bubble, including the seed accounts, that normalizes, glamorizes or promotes eating disorders.”

The report also showcased the firsthand account of a 17-year-old eating disorder survivor and activist identified as Kelsey. Kelsey wrote that it was impossible to “imagine a time when the app didn’t have the sort of content that promotes disordered eating behavior.” 

“I felt like my feed was always pushed towards this sort of content from the moment I opened my account,” Kelsey continued.

“That type of content at one point even got so normalized that prominent figures such as the Kardashians and other female and male influencers were openly promoting weight loss supplements and diet suppressors in order to help lose weight.”

Kelsey said Instagram delivered that content without any relevant searches, but posts about body positivity needed to be actively sought out. 

The report concluded by arguing that there needs to be legislation that regulates platforms like Instagram by requiring them to prioritize user safety, particularly for children.

Meta and Instagram have long been accused of disregarding child safety. Last year, a whistleblower unveiled documents that revealed the company knew of the harm it posed to young people, specifically regarding body image. A Meta spokesperson told The Hill that they were unable to address the most recent allegations in Fairplay’s report.

“We’re not able to fully address this report because the authors declined to share it with us, but reports like this often misunderstand that completely removing content related to peoples’ journeys with or recovery from eating disorders can exacerbate difficult moments and cut people off from community,” the spokesperson said.

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (CNet)

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Etsy Sellers Strike Amid Increased Transaction Fees and Mandatory Offsite Advertising

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“What began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople,” an Etsy seller wrote in a petition. 


Thousands of Etsy Sellers Shut Down Shops

Roughly 15,000 Etsy sellers are closing up their online shops starting Monday in protest of several grievances they have with the platform, including a new fee increase.

Starting on Monday, transaction fees are getting boosted from 5% to 6.5% on the platform. CEO Josh Silverman sent a memo claiming that this hike will allow the company to “make significant investments in marketing, seller tools, and creating a world-class customer experience,” but sellers have been frustrated by the change. 

“Etsy’s last fee increase was in July 2018. If this new one goes through, our basic fees to use the platform will have more than doubled in less than four years,” seller Kristi Cassidy wrote in a petition calling for a strike. As of Monday morning, over 50,000 Etsy sellers, customers, and employees had signed the petition.

“These basic fees do not include additional fees for Offsite ads – which started during the first wave of the pandemic,” Cassidy continued. 

Offsite ads allow Etsy to advertise sellers’ products on other websites like Google. Sellers who make over $10,000 a year reportedly have no way of opting out of the program and Etsy takes at least 12% of sales generated through the promotions. 

“Etsy fees are an unpredictable expense that can take more than 20% of each transaction,” Cassidy wrote. “We have no control over how these ads are administered, or how much of our money is spent.”

Etsy became a pandemic success story as online shopping rose amid lockdowns. Many turned to the platform to purchase masks and other goods, prompting its stock, sales, and number of sellers to rise. 

“It’s really obnoxious to tell us sellers, ‘Hey, we made record profits last year and we’re gonna celebrate by raising your fees a whole bunch,’” Bella Stander, a maps and guidebooks publisher who sells on Etsy, told the Wall Street Journal.  

What Etsy Sellers Are Demanding

Currently, there are over five million sellers on Etsy. Cassidy hopes that if enough of them unite, the company will have to respond. 

“As individual crafters, makers and small businesspeople, we may be easy for a giant corporation like Etsy to take advantage of,” she wrote. “But as an organized front of people, determined to use our diverse skills and boundless creativity to win ourselves a fairer deal, Etsy won’t have such an easy time shoving us around.”

In the petition’s list of demands, it asks that Etsy cancel the transaction fee increase, allow sellers to opt out of offsite ads, and provide a transparent plan to crack down on resellers who take up space on the platform.

It also demanded that Etsy end its “Star Seller Program,” which impacts how sellers can interact with their buyers.

“Etsy was founded with a vision of ‘keeping commerce human’ by ‘democratizing access to entrepreneurship.’ As a result, people who have been marginalized in traditional retail economies — women, people of color, LGBTQ people, neurodivergent people, etc. — make up a significant proportion of Etsy’s sellers,” Cassidy wrote.

“But as Etsy has strayed further and further from its founding vision over the years, what began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople.”

In a statement to Yahoo Finance, an Etsy spokesperson claimed that sellers were the company’s “top priority.”

“We are always receptive to seller feedback and, in fact, the new fee structure will enable us to increase our investments in areas outlined in the petition, including marketing, customer support, and removing listings that don’t meet our policies,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to providing great value for our 5.3 million sellers so they are able to grow their businesses while keeping Etsy a beloved, trusted, and thriving marketplace.”

The strike was a trending topic on Twitter Monday morning. Many sellers took to the social media site to pledge their support to the movement. 

Many sellers are urging buyers to refrain from using the site for the remainder of the week, which is how long the protest is currently scheduled to last.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (Yahoo Finance) (TechCrunch)

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