Welcome back: Zuck unbowed, investigating URLs
Originally published Nov. 6, 2021
Welcome back to my newsletter! If you’re wondering why this message hit your inbox, you subscribed when I was writing the Fake Newsletter for BuzzFeed News, or years earlier when this was my newsletter for Emergent.info.
This newsletter is focused on digital investigations: tips and techniques, examples of great reporting on disinformation and digital deception, links to resources, and occasional analysis of the digital ecosystem. I hope you stay with me. (Who am I?)
Why this Facebook scandal is different
In 2018, Facebook faced a massive scandal for allowing the personal data of millions of users to be sold to Cambridge Analytica. After threatening to sue The New York Times and The Guardian over their reporting, Facebook realized it was in trouble. A contrite and apologetic Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress a month later.
“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,“ Zuckerberg said in April 2018.
The company rushed to investigate other instances of data misuse, and shut off data access for some partners and products. A year later, Zuckerberg unveiled his "Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking.”
That’s what it looks like when Facebook acknowledges and takes action as a result of wrongdoing.
Not this time. After weeks of damning revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen and from the thousands of internal documents she shared with the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, Facebook and Zuckerberg are unbowed. Defiant, even.
Facebook’s response has included publicly undermining the work of its own researchers, accusing journalists of misrepresenting the documents, and calling the documents “stolen.”
During an Oct. 25 earnings call, Zuckerberg characterized the reporting as an unfair attack on Facebook. Even more striking, he announced the company’s social networking products will shift to focus on young adult users. It seems the only revelation in the Facebook Files/Papers that resonated with Zuckerberg was internal research showing the company risks losing young people in key markets.
Later that week, Zuckerberg starred in a glossy livestream launch of Facebook’s push into the metaverse. Oh, and the company changed its name!
The new product focus on the metaverse, and on young adults, requires billions of dollars in investment and new hiring. It’s akin to when the company did its famous 2012 push to mobile. Or starting in late 2016 when it kicked off a major investment in product development, partnerships, and hiring to tamp down misinformation and violative behavior on its platform.
In spite of what the Facebook Files/Papers revealed, Zuckerberg isn’t making integrity work a priority. Or acknowledging any of the concerns raised by the whistleblower documents.
This validates a core aspect of what the documents show, and what current and former employees have told me for years: at the end of the day, Facebook is focused on growth. Integrity initiatives lose out when they conflict with leadership’s drive for product and market domination, and constant forward motion. This strategy has been tremendous for shareholders — and unleashed tragic consequences.
This time there won’t be any apologies or stepped up investment in integrity. In fact, the push for young users and into the metaverse will arguably suck resources away from integrity, as noted by my former reporting partner, Ryan Mac.
In case there was ever any doubt, Zuckerberg remains unbowed, in charge, and hungry for growth.
Digital Investigation Tip: URLs
The URL is an overlooked area of investigation. You can sometimes learn interesting information just from the address of a webpage. This guide to URLs from OSINT Me is a good primer on URL structure, and the information that you can glean from the browser address bar. One tip I’ll add is that you should pay close attention to a URL if you clicked on an ad or a link in an email newsletter to get to that page. The resulting URL may include parameters about the campaign, affiliate, or ad network involved. Read more here:
Osint Me Tricky Thursday #8 – URL manipulation – osintme.com
This week’s focus will be on reviving a somewhat forgotten and neglected section of the blog – the Osint Me Tricky Thursday.
I love that The Markup provides detailed breakdowns of how it does its investigations. This description of the methodology for its excellent investigation of Amazon is worth reading:
How We Analyzed Amazon’s Treatment of Its “Brands” in Search Results – The Markup
We found that Amazon routinely puts its own brands and exclusive products first, above competitors with better ratings and more reviews
After 6 years at BuzzFeed News, I joined ProPublica in May. Here’s my most recent story. The next edition of this newsletter will focus on some investigation tips for Facebook Marketplace. One tip I’ll share next time will help you when analyzing a Facebook profile. So please stick around!
Facebook Grew Marketplace to 1 Billion Users. Now Scammers Are Using It to Target People Around the World. — ProPublica
ProPublica identified thousands of Marketplace listings and profiles that broke the company’s rules, revealing how Facebook failed to safeguard users.
Thanks for reading!