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Inside the Two Years That Rattled Facebook—and the World

How a confused, defensive social media giant steered itself into a disaster, and how Mark Zuckerberg is trying to fix it all.

One day in late February of 2016, Mark Zuckerberg put out a memo to all of Facebook’s employees in addressing some concerning behavior in the ranks. His message pertained to some walls at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters where staffers are encouraged to scribble notes and signatures. On at least a couple of occasions, someone had crossed out the words “Black Lives Matter” and replaced them with “All Lives Matter.” Zuckerberg wanted whoever was responsible to stop it.

“ ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t,” he wrote. “We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls,” the memo went on. But “crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s.” The defacement, he said, was being investigated.

All around the country at about this time, debates about race and politics were becoming increasingly raw. Donald Trump had just won the South Carolina primary, lashed out at the Pope over immigration, and earned the enthusiastic support of David Duke. Hillary Clinton had just defeated Bernie Sanders in the state of Nevada, only to have an activist from Black Lives Matter interrupt a speech of hers to protest racially charged statements she’d made two decades before. And on Facebook, a popular group called Blacktivist was gaining traction by blasting out messages like “American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture.”

So when Zuckerberg’s admonition circulated, a young contract employee named Benjamin Fearnow decided it might be newsworthy. He took a screenshot on his personal laptop and sent the image to a friend named Michael Nuñez, who worked at the tech-news site Gizmodo. Nuñez promptly published a brief story about Zuckerberg’s memo.

A week later, Fearnow came across something else he thought Nuñez might like to publish. In another internal communication, Facebook had invited its employees to submit potential questions to ask Zuckerberg at an all-hands meeting. One of the most up-voted questions that week was “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” Fearnow took another screenshot, this time with his phone.

Fearnow, a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, worked in Facebook’s New York office on something called Trending Topics, a feed of popular news subjects that popped up when people opened Facebook. The feed was generated by an algorithm but moderated by a team of around 25 people with backgrounds in reporting. If the word “Trump” was trending, as it often was, they used their news judgment to identify which bit of news about the candidate was most important. If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that went viral, they had to keep that out. If something like a mass shooting happened, and Facebook’s algorithm was slow to pick up on it, they would inject a story about it into the feed

Facebook prides itself on being a place where people just love to work. But Fearnow and his team weren’t exactly the happiest lot. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t really part of Facebook. Plus, the young journalists knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech companies, for the most part, prefer to have as little as possible done by humans—because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They need bathroom breaks and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone assumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the people on Fearnow’s team—who served partly to train those algorithms—would be expendable.The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he noticed that he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his phone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recalls, he was nonetheless asked to be available in 10 minutes. Soon he was on a video­conference with three Facebook employees, including Sonya Ahuja, the company’s head of investigations. According to his recounting of the meeting, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nuñez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t accessible to Facebook. He was fired. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it,” she instructed him.That same day, Ahuja had another conversation with a second employee at Trending Topics named Ryan Villarreal. Several years before, he and Fearnow had shared an apartment with Nuñez. Villarreal said he hadn’t taken any screenshots, and he certainly hadn’t leaked them. But he had clicked “like” on the story about Black Lives Matter, and he was friends with Nuñez on Facebook. “Do you think leaks are bad?” Ahuja demanded to know, according to Villarreal. He was fired too. The last he heard from his employer was in a letter from BCforward. The company had given him $15 to cover expenses, and it wanted the money back.

The firing of Fearnow and Villarreal set the Trending Topics team on edge—and Nuñez kept digging for dirt. He soon published a story about the internal poll showing Facebookers’ interest in fending off Trump. Then, in early May, he published an article based on conversations with yet a third former Trending Topics employee, under the blaring headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The piece suggested that Facebook’s Trending team worked like a Fox News fever dream, with a bunch of biased curators “injecting” liberal stories and “blacklisting” conservative ones. Within a few hours the piece popped onto half a dozen highly trafficked tech and politics websites, including Drudge Report and Breitbart News.

This is the story of those two years, as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their names used, for reasons anyone familiar with the story of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand. (One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.)

The stories varied, but most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds. And—in the tale’s final chapters—of the company’s earnest attempt to redeem itself.

In that saga, Fearnow plays one of those obscure but crucial roles that history occasionally hands out. He’s the Franz Ferdinand of Facebook—or maybe he’s more like the archduke’s hapless young assassin. Either way, in the rolling disaster that has enveloped Facebook since early 2016, Fearnow’s leaks probably ought to go down as the screenshots heard round the world.

II

By now, the story of Facebook’s all-consuming growth is practically the creation myth of our information era. What began as a way to connect with your friends at Harvard became a way to connect with people at other elite schools, then at all schools, and then everywhere. After that, your Facebook login became a way to log on to other internet sites. Its Messenger app started competing with email and texting. It became the place where you told people you were safe after an earthquake. In some countries like the Philippines, it effectively is the internet.The furious energy of this big bang emanated, in large part, from a brilliant and simple insight. Humans are social animals. But the internet is a cesspool. That scares people away from identifying themselves and putting personal details online. Solve that problem—make people feel safe to post—and they will share obsessively. Make the resulting database of privately shared information and personal connections available to advertisers, and that platform will become one of the most important media technologies of the early 21st century.But as powerful as that original insight was, Facebook’s expansion has also been driven by sheer brawn. Zuckerberg has been a determined, even ruthless, steward of the company’s manifest destiny, with an uncanny knack for placing the right bets. In the company’s early days, “move fast and break things” wasn’t just a piece of advice to his developers; it was a philosophy that served to resolve countless delicate trade-offs—many of them involving user privacy—in ways that best favored the platform’s growth. And when it comes to competitors, Zuckerberg has been relentless in either acquiring or sinking any challengers that seem to have the wind at their backs.

Facebook’s Reckoning

Two years that forced the platform to change

by Blanca Myers

March 2016

Facebook suspends Benjamin Fearnow, a journalist-­curator for the platform’s Trending Topics feed, after he leaks to Gizmodo.

May 2016

Gizmodo reports that Trending Topics “routinely suppressed conservative news.” The story sends Facebook scrambling.

July 2016

Rupert Murdoch tells Zuckerberg that Facebook is wreaking havoc on the news industry and threatens to cause trouble.

August 2016

Facebook cuts loose all of its Trending Topics journalists, ceding authority over the feed to engineers in Seattle.

November 2016

Donald Trump wins. Zuckerberg says it’s “pretty crazy” to think fake news on Facebook helped tip the election.

December 2016

Facebook declares war on fake news, hires CNN alum Campbell Brown to shepherd relations with the publishing industry.

September 2017

Facebook announces that a Russian group paid $100,000 for roughly 3,000 ads aimed at US voters.

October 2017

Researcher Jonathan Albright reveals that posts from six Russian propaganda accounts were shared 340 million times.

November 2017

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch gets pummeled during congressional Intelligence Committee hearings.

January 2018

Facebook begins announcing major changes, aimed to ensure that time on the platform will be “time well spent.”

In fact, it was in besting just such a rival that Facebook came to dominate how we discover and consume news. Back in 2012, the most exciting social network for distributing news online wasn’t Facebook, it was Twitter. The latter’s 140-character posts accelerated the speed at which news could spread, allowing its influence in the news industry to grow much faster than Facebook’s. “Twitter was this massive, massive threat,” says a former Facebook executive heavily involved in the decisionmaking at the time.

So Zuckerberg pursued a strategy he has often deployed against competitors he cannot buy: He copied, then crushed. He adjusted Facebook’s News Feed to fully incorporate news (despite its name, the feed was originally tilted toward personal news) and adjusted the product so that it showed author bylines and headlines. Then Facebook’s emissaries fanned out to talk with journalists and explain how to best reach readers through the platform. By the end of 2013, Facebook had doubled its share of traffic to news sites and had started to push Twitter into a decline. By the middle of 2015, it had surpassed Google as the leader in referring readers to publisher sites and was now referring 13 times as many readers to news publishers as Twitter. That year, Facebook launched Instant Articles, offering publishers the chance to publish directly on the platform. Posts would load faster and look sharper if they agreed, but the publishers would give up an element of control over the content. The publishing industry, which had been reeling for years, largely assented. Facebook now effectively owned the news. “If you could reproduce Twitter inside of Facebook, why would you go to Twitter?” says the former executive. “What they are doing to Snapchat now, they did to Twitter back then.”

It appears that Facebook did not, however, carefully think through the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. Everyone in management cared about quality and accuracy, and they had set up rules, for example, to eliminate pornography and protect copyright. But Facebook hired few journalists and spent little time discussing the big questions that bedevil the media industry. What is fair? What is a fact? How do you signal the difference between news, analysis, satire, and opinion? Facebook has long seemed to think it has immunity from those debates because it is just a technology company—one that has built a “platform for all ideas.”

This notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company. When new recruits come in, they are treated to an orientation lecture by Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, who tells them Facebook is an entirely new communications platform for the 21st century, as the telephone was for the 20th. But if anyone inside Facebook is unconvinced by religion, there is also Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to recommend the idea. This is the section of US law that shelters internet intermediaries from liability for the content their users post. If Facebook were to start creating or editing content on its platform, it would risk losing that immunity—and it’s hard to imagine how Facebook could exist if it were liable for the many billion pieces of content a day that users post on its site.

And so, because of the company’s self-image, as well as its fear of regulation, Facebook tried never to favor one kind of news content over another. But neutrality is a choice in itself. For instance, Facebook decided to present every piece of content that appeared on News Feed—whether it was your dog pictures or a news story—in roughly the same way. This meant that all news stories looked roughly the same as each other, too, whether they were investigations in The Washington Post, gossip in the New York Post, or flat-out lies in the Denver Guardian, an entirely bogus newspaper. Facebook argued that this democratized information. You saw what your friends wanted you to see, not what some editor in a Times Square tower chose. But it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t an editorial decision. It may be one of the biggest ever made.

In any case, Facebook’s move into news set off yet another explosion of ways that people could connect. Now Facebook was the place where publications could connect with their readers—and also where Macedonian teenagers could connect with voters in America, and operatives in Saint Petersburg could connect with audiences of their own choosing in a way that no one at the company had ever seen before.

III

In February of 2016, just as the Trending Topics fiasco was building up steam, Roger ­McNamee became one of the first Facebook insiders to notice strange things happening on the platform. McNamee was an early investor in Facebook who had mentored Zuckerberg through two crucial decisions: to turn down Yahoo’s offer of $1 billion to acquire Facebook in 2006; and to hire a Google executive named Sheryl Sandberg in 2008 to help find a business model. McNamee was no longer in touch with Zuckerberg much, but he was still an investor, and that month he started seeing things related to the Bernie Sanders campaign that worried him. “I’m observing memes ostensibly coming out of a Facebook group associated with the Sanders campaign that couldn’t possibly have been from the Sanders campaign,” he recalls, “and yet they were organized and spreading in such a way that suggested somebody had a budget. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘That’s really weird. I mean, that’s not good.’ ”But McNamee didn’t say anything to anyone at Facebook—at least not yet. And the company itself was not picking up on any such worrying signals, save for one blip on its radar: In early 2016, its security team noticed an uptick in Russian actors attempting to steal the credentials of journalists and public figures. Facebook reported this to the FBI. But the company says it never heard back from the government, and that was that.Instead, Facebook spent the spring of 2016 very busily fending off accusations that it might influence the elections in a completely different way. When Gizmodo published its story about political bias on the Trending Topics team in May, the ­article went off like a bomb in Menlo Park. It quickly reached millions of readers and, in a delicious irony, appeared in the Trending Topics module itself. But the bad press wasn’t what really rattled Facebook—it was the letter from John Thune, a Republican US senator from South Dakota, that followed the story’s publication. Thune chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which in turn oversees the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that has been especially active in investigating Facebook. The senator wanted Facebook’s answers to the allegations of bias, and he wanted them promptly.

The Thune letter put Facebook on high alert. The company promptly dispatched senior Washington staffers to meet with Thune’s team. Then it sent him a 12-page single-spaced letter explaining that it had conducted a thorough review of Trending Topics and determined that the allegations in the Gizmodo story were largely false.

Facebook decided, too, that it had to extend an olive branch to the entire American right wing, much of which was raging about the company’s supposed perfidy. And so, just over a week after the story ran, Facebook scrambled to invite a group of 17 prominent Republicans out to Menlo Park. The list included television hosts, radio stars, think tankers, and an adviser to the Trump campaign. The point was partly to get feedback. But more than that, the company wanted to make a show of apologizing for its sins, lifting up the back of its shirt, and asking for the lash.

 

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According to a Facebook employee involved in planning the meeting, part of the goal was to bring in a group of conservatives who were certain to fight with one another. They made sure to have libertarians who wouldn’t want to regulate the platform and partisans who would. Another goal, according to the employee, was to make sure the attendees were “bored to death” by a technical presentation after Zuckerberg and Sandberg had addressed the group.

The power went out, and the room got uncomfortably hot. But otherwise the meeting went according to plan. The guests did indeed fight, and they failed to unify in a way that was either threatening or coherent. Some wanted the company to set hiring quotas for conservative employees; others thought that idea was nuts. As often happens when outsiders meet with Facebook, people used the time to try to figure out how they could get more followers for their own pages.

Afterward, Glenn Beck, one of the invitees, wrote an essay about the meeting, praising Zuckerberg. “I asked him if Facebook, now or in the future, would be an open platform for the sharing of all ideas or a curator of content,” Beck wrote. “Without hesitation, with clarity and boldness, Mark said there is only one Facebook and one path forward: ‘We are an open platform.’”

Inside Facebook itself, the backlash around Trending Topics did inspire some genuine soul-searching. But none of it got very far. A quiet internal project, codenamed Hudson, cropped up around this time to determine, according to someone who worked on it, whether News Feed should be modified to better deal with some of the most complex issues facing the product. Does it favor posts that make people angry? Does it favor simple or even false ideas over complex and true ones? Those are hard questions, and the company didn’t have answers to them yet. Ultimately, in late June, Facebook announced a modest change: The algorithm would be revised to favor posts from friends and family. At the same time, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s News Feed boss, posted a manifesto titled “Building a Better News Feed for You.” People inside Facebook spoke of it as a document roughly resembling the Magna Carta; the company had never spoken before about how News Feed really worked. To outsiders, though, the document came across as boilerplate. It said roughly what you’d expect: that the company was opposed to clickbait but that it wasn’t in the business of favoring certain kinds of viewpoints.

The most important consequence of the Trending Topics controversy, according to nearly a dozen former and current employees, was that Facebook became wary of doing anything that might look like stifling conservative news. It had burned its fingers once and didn’t want to do it again. And so a summer of deeply partisan rancor and calumny began with Facebook eager to stay out of the fray.

IV

Shortly after Mosseri published his guide to News Feed values, Zuckerberg traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, for an annual conference hosted by billionaire Herb Allen, where moguls in short sleeves and sunglasses cavort and make plans to buy each other’s companies. But Rupert Murdoch broke the mood in a meeting that took place inside his villa. According to numerous accounts of the conversation, Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the CEO of News Corp, explained to Zuckerberg that they had long been unhappy with Facebook and Google. The two tech giants had taken nearly the entire digital ad market and become an existential threat to serious journalism. According to people familiar with the conversation, the two News Corp leaders accused Facebook of making dramatic changes to its core algorithm without adequately consulting its media partners, wreaking havoc according to Zuckerberg’s whims. If Facebook didn’t start offering a better deal to the publishing industry, Thomson and Murdoch conveyed in stark terms, Zuckerberg could expect News Corp executives to become much more public in their denunciations and much more open in their lobbying. They had helped to make things very hard for Google in Europe. And they could do the same for Facebook in the US.Facebook thought that News Corp was threatening to push for a government antitrust investigation or maybe an inquiry into whether the company deserved its protection from liability as a neutral platform. Inside Facebook, executives believed Murdoch might use his papers and TV stations to amplify critiques of the company. News Corp says that was not at all the case; the company threatened to deploy executives, but not its journalists.Zuckerberg had reason to take the meeting especially seriously, according to a former Facebook executive, because he had firsthand knowledge of Murdoch’s skill in the dark arts. Back in 2007, Facebook had come under criticism from 49 state attorneys general for failing to protect young Facebook users from sexual predators and inappropriate content. Concerned parents had written to Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who opened an investigation, and to The New York Times, which published a story. But according to a former Facebook executive in a position to know, the company believed that many of the Facebook accounts and the predatory behavior the letters referenced were fakes, traceable to News Corp lawyers or others working for Murdoch, who owned Facebook’s biggest competitor, MySpace. “We traced the creation of the Facebook accounts to IP addresses at the Apple store a block away from the MySpace offices in Santa Monica,” the executive says. “Facebook then traced interactions with those accounts to News Corp lawyers. When it comes to Facebook, Murdoch has been playing every angle he can for a long time.” (Both News Corp and its spinoff 21st Century Fox declined to comment.)

Zuckerberg took Murdoch’s threats seriously—he had firsthand knowledge of the older man’s skill in the dark arts.

When Zuckerberg returned from Sun Valley, he told his employees that things had to change. They still weren’t in the news business, but they had to make sure there would be a news business. And they had to communicate better. One of those who got a new to-do list was Andrew Anker, a product manager who’d arrived at Facebook in 2015 after a career in journalism (including a long stint at WIRED in the ’90s). One of his jobs was to help the company think through how publishers could make money on the platform. Shortly after Sun Valley, Anker met with Zuckerberg and asked to hire 60 new people to work on partnerships with the news industry. Before the meeting ended, the request was approved.

But having more people out talking to publishers just drove home how hard it would be to resolve the financial problems Murdoch wanted fixed. News outfits were spending millions to produce stories that Facebook was benefiting from, and Facebook, they felt, was giving too little back in return. Instant Articles, in particular, struck them as a Trojan horse. Publishers complained that they could make more money from stories that loaded on their own mobile web pages than on Facebook Instant. (They often did so, it turned out, in ways that short-changed advertisers, by sneaking in ads that readers were unlikely to see. Facebook didn’t let them get away with that.) Another seemingly irreconcilable difference: Outlets like Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal depended on paywalls to make money, but Instant Articles banned paywalls; Zuckerberg disapproved of them. After all, he would often ask, how exactly do walls and toll booths make the world more open and connected?

The conversations often ended at an impasse, but Facebook was at least becoming more attentive. This newfound appreciation for the concerns of journalists did not, however, extend to the journalists on Facebook’s own Trending Topics team. In late August, everyone on the team was told that their jobs were being eliminated. Simultaneously, authority over the algorithm shifted to a team of engineers based in Seattle. Very quickly the module started to surface lies and fiction. A headline days later read, “Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary.”

V

While Facebook grappled internally with what it was becoming—a company that dominated media but didn’t want to be a media company—Donald Trump’s presidential campaign staff faced no such confusion. To them Facebook’s use was obvious. Twitter was a tool for communicating directly with supporters and yelling at the media. Facebook was the way to run the most effective direct-­marketing political operation in history.In the summer of 2016, at the top of the general election campaign, Trump’s digital operation might have seemed to be at a major disadvantage. After all, Hillary Clinton’s team was flush with elite talent and got advice from Eric Schmidt, known for running ­Google. Trump’s was run by Brad Parscale, known for setting up the Eric Trump Foundation’s web page. Trump’s social media director was his former caddie. But in 2016, it turned out you didn’t need digital experience running a presidential campaign, you just needed a knack for Facebook.Over the course of the summer, Trump’s team turned the platform into one of its primary vehicles for fund-­raising. The campaign uploaded its voter files—the names, addresses, voting history, and any other information it had on potential voters—to Facebook. Then, using a tool called Look­alike Audiences, Facebook identified the broad characteristics of, say, people who had signed up for Trump newsletters or bought Trump hats. That allowed the campaign to send ads to people with similar traits. Trump would post simple messages like “This election is being rigged by the media pushing false and unsubstantiated charges, and outright lies, in order to elect Crooked Hillary!” that got hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, and shares. The money rolled in. Clinton’s wonkier messages, meanwhile, resonated less on the platform. Inside Facebook, almost everyone on the executive team wanted Clinton to win; but they knew that Trump was using the platform better. If he was the candidate for Facebook, she was the candidate for LinkedIn.

Trump’s candidacy also proved to be a wonderful tool for a new class of scammers pumping out massively viral and entirely fake stories. Through trial and error, they learned that memes praising the former host of The Apprentice got many more readers than ones praising the former secretary of state. A website called Ending the Fed proclaimed that the Pope had endorsed Trump and got almost a million comments, shares, and reactions on Facebook, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed. Other stories asserted that the former first lady had quietly been selling weapons to ISIS, and that an FBI agent suspected of leaking Clinton’s emails was found dead. Some of the posts came from hyperpartisan Americans. Some came from overseas content mills that were in it purely for the ad dollars. By the end of the campaign, the top fake stories on the platform were generating more engagement than the top real ones.

Even current Facebookers acknowledge now that they missed what should have been obvious signs of people misusing the platform. And looking back, it’s easy to put together a long list of possible explanations for the myopia in Menlo Park about fake news. Management was gun-shy because of the Trending Topics fiasco; taking action against partisan disinformation—or even identifying it as such—might have been seen as another act of political favoritism. Facebook also sold ads against the stories, and sensational garbage was good at pulling people into the platform. Employees’ bonuses can be based largely on whether Facebook hits certain growth and revenue targets, which gives people an extra incentive not to worry too much about things that are otherwise good for engagement. And then there was the ever-present issue of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. If the company started taking responsibility for fake news, it might have to take responsibility for a lot more. Facebook had plenty of reasons to keep its head in the sand.

Roger McNamee, however, watched carefully as the nonsense spread. First there were the fake stories pushing Bernie Sanders, then he saw ones supporting Brexit, and then helping Trump. By the end of the summer, he had resolved to write an op-ed about the problems on the platform. But he never ran it. “The idea was, look, these are my friends. I really want to help them.” And so on a Sunday evening, nine days before the 2016 election, McNamee emailed a 1,000-word letter to Sandberg and Zuckerberg. “I am really sad about Facebook,” it began. “I got involved with the company more than a decade ago and have taken great pride and joy in the company’s success … until the past few months. Now I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed.”

It’s not easy to recognize that the machine you’ve built to bring people together is being used to tear them apart, and Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to Trump’s victory, and Facebook’s possible role in it, was one of peevish dismissal. Executives remember panic the first few days, with the leadership team scurrying back and forth between Zuckerberg’s conference room (called the Aquarium) and Sandberg’s (called Only Good News), trying to figure out what had just happened and whether they would be blamed. Then, at a conference two days after the election, Zuckerberg argued that filter bubbles are worse offline than on Facebook and that social media hardly influences how people vote. “The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea,” he said.

Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for this article, but people who know him well say he likes to form his opinions from data. And in this case he wasn’t without it. Before the interview, his staff had worked up a back-of-the-­envelope calculation showing that fake news was a tiny percentage of the total amount of election-­related content on the platform. But the analysis was just an aggregate look at the percentage of clearly fake stories that appeared across all of Facebook. It didn’t measure their influence or the way fake news affected specific groups. It was a number, but not a particularly meaningful one.

Zuckerberg’s comments did not go over well, even inside Facebook. They seemed clueless and self-absorbed. “What he said was incredibly damaging,” a former executive told WIRED. “We had to really flip him on that. We realized that if we didn’t, the company was going to start heading down this pariah path that Uber was on.”

A week after his “pretty crazy” comment, Zuckerberg flew to Peru to give a talk to world leaders about the ways that connecting more people to the internet, and to Facebook, could reduce global poverty. Right after he landed in Lima, he posted something of a mea culpa. He explained that Facebook did take misinformation seriously, and he presented a vague seven-point plan to tackle it. When a professor at the New School named David Carroll saw Zuckerberg’s post, he took a screenshot. Alongside it on Carroll’s feed ran a headline from a fake CNN with an image of a distressed Donald Trump and the text “DISQUALIFIED; He’s GONE!”

At the conference in Peru, Zuckerberg met with a man who knows a few things about politics: Barack Obama. Media reports portrayed the encounter as one in which the lame-duck president pulled Zuckerberg aside and gave him a “wake-up call” about fake news. But according to someone who was with them in Lima, it was Zuckerberg who called the meeting, and his agenda was merely to convince Obama that, yes,

Facebook was serious about dealing with the problem. He truly wanted to thwart misinformation, he said, but it wasn’t an easy issue to solve.

One employee compared Zuckerberg to Lennie in Of Mice and Men—a man with no understanding of his own strength.

Meanwhile, at Facebook, the gears churned. For the first time, insiders really began to question whether they had too much power. One employee told WIRED that, watching Zuckerberg, he was reminded of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the farm-worker with no understanding of his own strength.

Very soon after the election, a team of employees started working on something called the News Feed Integrity Task Force, inspired by a sense, one of them told WIRED, that hyperpartisan misinformation was “a disease that’s creeping into the entire platform.” The group, which included Mosseri and Anker, began to meet every day, using whiteboards to outline different ways they could respond to the fake-news crisis. Within a few weeks the company announced it would cut off advertising revenue for ad farms and make it easier for users to flag stories they thought false.

In December the company announced that, for the first time, it would introduce fact-checking onto the platform. Facebook didn’t want to check facts itself; instead it would outsource the problem to professionals. If Facebook received enough signals that a story was false, it would automatically be sent to partners, like Snopes, for review. Then, in early January, Facebook announced that it had hired Campbell Brown, a former anchor at CNN. She immediately became the most prominent journalist hired by the company.

Soon Brown was put in charge of something called the Facebook Journalism Project. “We spun it up over the holidays, essentially,” says one person involved in discussions about the project. The aim was to demonstrate that Facebook was thinking hard about its role in the future of journalism—essentially, it was a more public and organized version of the efforts the company had begun after Murdoch’s tongue-lashing. But sheer anxiety was also part of the motivation. “After the election, because Trump won, the media put a ton of attention on fake news and just started hammering us. People started panicking and getting afraid that regulation was coming. So the team looked at what Google had been doing for years with News Lab”—a group inside Alphabet that builds tools for journalists—“and we decided to figure out how we could put together our own packaged program that shows how seriously we take the future of news.”

Facebook was reluctant, however, to issue any mea culpas or action plans with regard to the problem of filter bubbles or Facebook’s noted propensity to serve as a tool for amplifying outrage. Members of the leadership team regarded these as issues that couldn’t be solved, and maybe even shouldn’t be solved. Was Facebook really more at fault for amplifying outrage during the election than, say, Fox News or MSNBC? Sure, you could put stories into people’s feeds that contradicted their political viewpoints, but people would turn away from them, just as surely as they’d flip the dial back if their TV quietly switched them from Sean Hannity to Joy Reid. The problem, as Anker puts it, “is not Facebook. It’s humans.”

VII

Zuckerberg’s “pretty crazy” statement about fake news caught the ear of a lot of people, but one of the most influential was a security researcher named Renée DiResta. For years, she’d been studying how misinformation spreads on the platform. If you joined an antivaccine group on Facebook, she observed, the platform might suggest that you join flat-earth groups or maybe ones devoted to Pizzagate—putting you on a conveyor belt of conspiracy thinking. Zuckerberg’s statement struck her as wildly out of touch. “How can this platform say this thing?” she remembers thinking.Roger McNamee, meanwhile, was getting steamed at Facebook’s response to his letter. Zuckerberg and Sandberg had written him back promptly, but they hadn’t said anything substantial. Instead he ended up having a months-long, ultimately futile set of email exchanges with Dan Rose, Facebook’s VP for partnerships. McNamee says Rose’s message was polite but also very firm: The company was doing a lot of good work that McNamee couldn’t see, and in any event Facebook was a platform, not a media company.“And I’m sitting there going, ‘Guys, seriously, I don’t think that’s how it works,’” McNamee says. “You can assert till you’re blue in the face that you’re a platform, but if your users take a different point of view, it doesn’t matter what you assert.”

As the saying goes, heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, and McNamee’s concern soon became a cause—and the beginning of an alliance. In April 2017 he connected with a former Google design ethicist named Tristan Harris when they appeared together on Bloomberg TV. Harris had by then gained a national reputation as the conscience of Silicon Valley. He had been profiled on 60 Minutes and in The Atlantic, and he spoke eloquently about the subtle tricks that social media companies use to foster an addiction to their services. “They can amplify the worst aspects of human nature,” Harris told WIRED this past December. After the TV appearance, McNamee says he called Harris up and asked, “Dude, do you need a wingman?”

The next month, DiResta published an ­article comparing purveyors of disinformation on social media to manipulative high-frequency traders in financial markets. “Social networks enable malicious actors to operate at platform scale, because they were designed for fast information flows and virality,” she wrote. Bots and sock puppets could cheaply “create the illusion of a mass groundswell of grassroots activity,” in much the same way that early, now-illegal trading algorithms could spoof demand for a stock. Harris read the article, was impressed, and emailed her.

The three were soon out talking to anyone who would listen about Facebook’s poisonous effects on American democracy. And before long they found receptive audiences in the media and Congress—groups with their own mounting grievances against the social media giant.

VIII

Even at the best of times, meetings between Facebook and media executives can feel like unhappy family gatherings. The two sides are inextricably bound together, but they don’t like each other all that much. News executives resent that Facebook and Google have captured roughly three-quarters of the digital ad business, leaving the media industry and other platforms, like Twitter, to fight over scraps. Plus they feel like the preferences of Facebook’s algorithm have pushed the industry to publish ever-dumber stories. For years, The New York Times resented that Facebook helped elevate BuzzFeed; now BuzzFeed is angry about being displaced by clickbait.And then there’s the simple, deep fear and mistrust that Facebook inspires. Every publisher knows that, at best, they are sharecroppers on Facebook’s massive industrial farm. The social network is roughly 200 times more valuable than the Times. And journalists know that the man who owns the farm has the leverage. If Facebook wanted to, it could quietly turn any number of dials that would harm a publisher—by manipulating its traffic, its ad network, or its readers.Emissaries from Facebook, for their part, find it tiresome to be lectured by people who can’t tell an algorithm from an API. They also know that Facebook didn’t win the digital ad market through luck: It built a better ad product. And in their darkest moments, they wonder: What’s the point? News makes up only about 5 percent of the total content that people see on Facebook globally. The company could let it all go and its shareholders would scarcely notice. And there’s another, deeper problem: Mark Zuckerberg, according to people who know him, prefers to think about the future. He’s less interested in the news industry’s problems right now; he’s interested in the problems five or 20 years from now. The editors of major media companies, on the other hand, are worried about their next quarter—maybe even their next phone call. When they bring lunch back to their desks, they know not to buy green bananas.

This mutual wariness—sharpened almost to enmity in the wake of the election—did not make life easy for Campbell Brown when she started her new job running the nascent Facebook Journalism Project. The first item on her to-do list was to head out on yet another Facebook listening tour with editors and publishers. One editor describes a fairly typical meeting: Brown and Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, invited a group of media leaders to gather in late January 2017 at Brown’s apartment in Manhattan. Cox, a quiet, suave man, sometimes referred to as “the Ryan Gosling of Facebook Product,” took the brunt of the ensuing abuse. “Basically, a bunch of us just laid into him about how Facebook was destroying journalism, and he graciously absorbed it,” the editor says. “He didn’t much try to defend them. I think the point was really to show up and seem to be listening.” Other meetings were even more tense, with the occasional comment from journalists noting their interest in digital antitrust issues.

As bruising as all this was, Brown’s team became more confident that their efforts were valued within the company when Zuckerberg published a 5,700-word corporate manifesto in February. He had spent the previous three months, according to people who know him, contemplating whether he had created something that did more harm than good. “Are we building the world we all want?” he asked at the beginning of his post, implying that the answer was an obvious no. Amid sweeping remarks about “building a global community,” he emphasized the need to keep people informed and to knock out false news and clickbait. Brown and others at Facebook saw the manifesto as a sign that Zuckerberg understood the company’s profound civic responsibilities. Others saw the document as blandly grandiose, showcasing Zuckerberg’s tendency to suggest that the answer to nearly any problem is for people to use Facebook more.

Shortly after issuing the manifesto, Zuckerberg set off on a carefully scripted listening tour of the country. He began popping into candy shops and dining rooms in red states, camera crew and personal social media team in tow. He wrote an earnest post about what he was learning, and he deflected questions about whether his real goal was to become president. It seemed like a well-­meaning effort to win friends for Facebook. But it soon became clear that Facebook’s biggest problems emanated from places farther away than Ohio.

IX

One of the many things Zuckerberg seemed not to grasp when he wrote his manifesto was that his platform had empowered an enemy far more sophisticated than Macedonian teenagers and assorted low-rent purveyors of bull. As 2017 wore on, however, the company began to realize it had been attacked by a foreign influence operation. “I would draw a real distinction between fake news and the Russia stuff,” says an executive who worked on the company’s response to both. “With the latter there was a moment where everyone said ‘Oh, holy shit, this is like a national security situation.’”That holy shit moment, though, didn’t come until more than six months after the election. Early in the campaign season, Facebook was aware of familiar attacks emanating from known Russian hackers, such as the group APT28, which is believed to be affiliated with Moscow. They were hacking into accounts outside of Facebook, stealing documents, then creating fake Facebook accounts under the banner of DCLeaks, to get people to discuss what they’d stolen. The company saw no signs of a serious, concerted foreign propaganda campaign, but it also didn’t think to look for one.During the spring of 2017, the company’s security team began preparing a report about how Russian and other foreign intelligence operations had used the platform. One of its authors was Alex Stamos, head of Facebook’s security team. Stamos was something of an icon in the tech world for having reportedly resigned from his previous job at Yahoo after a conflict over whether to grant a US intelligence agency access to Yahoo servers. According to two people with direct knowledge of the document, he was eager to publish a detailed, specific analysis of what the company had found. But members of the policy and communications team pushed back and cut his report way down. Sources close to the security team suggest the company didn’t want to get caught up in the political whirlwind of the moment. (Sources on the politics and communications teams insist they edited the report down, just because the darn thing was hard to read.)

On April 27, 2017, the day after the Senate announced it was calling then FBI director James Comey to testify about the Russia investigation, Stamos’ report came out. It was titled “Information Operations and Facebook,” and it gave a careful step-by-step explanation of how a foreign adversary could use Facebook to manipulate people. But there were few specific examples or details, and there was no direct mention of Russia. It felt bland and cautious. As Renée DiResta says, “I remember seeing the report come out and thinking, ‘Oh, goodness, is this the best they could do in six months?’”

One month later, a story in Time suggested to Stamos’ team that they might have missed something in their analysis. The article quoted an unnamed senior intelligence official saying that Russian operatives had bought ads on Facebook to target Americans with propaganda. Around the same time, the security team also picked up hints from congressional investigators that made them think an intelligence agency was indeed looking into Russian Facebook ads. Caught off guard, the team members started to dig into the company’s archival ads data themselves.

Eventually, by sorting transactions according to a series of data points—Were ads purchased in rubles? Were they purchased within browsers whose language was set to Russian?—they were able to find a cluster of accounts, funded by a shadowy Russian group called the Internet Research Agency, that had been designed to manipulate political opinion in America. There was, for example, a page called Heart of Texas, which pushed for the secession of the Lone Star State. And there was Blacktivist, which pushed stories about police brutality against black men and women and had more followers than the verified Black Lives Matter page.

Numerous security researchers express consternation that it took Facebook so long to realize how the Russian troll farm was exploiting the platform. After all, the group was well known to Facebook. Executives at the company say they’re embarrassed by how long it took them to find the fake accounts, but they point out that they were never given help by US intelligence agencies. A staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee likewise voiced exasperation with the company. “It seemed obvious that it was a tactic the Russians would exploit,” the staffer says.

When Facebook finally did find the Russian propaganda on its platform, the discovery set off a crisis, a scramble, and a great deal of confusion. First, due to a miscalculation, word initially spread through the company that the Russian group had spent millions of dollars on ads, when the actual total was in the low six figures. Once that error was resolved, a disagreement broke out over how much to reveal, and to whom. The company could release the data about the ads to the public, release everything to Congress, or release nothing. Much of the argument hinged on questions of user privacy. Members of the security team worried that the legal process involved in handing over private user data, even if it belonged to a Russian troll farm, would open the door for governments to seize data from other Facebook users later on. “There was a real debate internally,” says one executive. “Should we just say ‘Fuck it’ and not worry?” But eventually the company decided it would be crazy to throw legal caution to the wind “just because Rachel Maddow wanted us to.”

Ultimately, a blog post appeared under Stamos’ name in early September announcing that, as far as the company could tell, the Russians had paid Facebook $100,000 for roughly 3,000 ads aimed at influencing American politics around the time of the 2016 election. Every sentence in the post seemed to downplay the substance of these new revelations: The number of ads was small, the expense was small. And Facebook wasn’t going to release them. The public wouldn’t know what they looked like or what they were really aimed at doing.

This didn’t sit at all well with DiResta. She had long felt that Facebook was insufficiently forthcoming, and now it seemed to be flat-out stonewalling. “That was when it went from incompetence to malice,” she says. A couple of weeks later, while waiting at a Walgreens to pick up a prescription for one of her kids, she got a call from a researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism named Jonathan Albright. He had been mapping ecosystems of misinformation since the election, and he had some excellent news. “I found this thing,” he said. Albright had started digging into CrowdTangle, one of the analytics platforms that Facebook uses. And he had discovered that the data from six of the accounts Facebook had shut down were still there, frozen in a state of suspended animation. There were the posts pushing for Texas secession and playing on racial antipathy. And then there were political posts, like one that referred to Clinton as “that murderous anti-American traitor Killary.” Right before the election, the Blacktivist account urged its supporters to stay away from Clinton and instead vote for Jill Stein. Albright downloaded the most recent 500 posts from each of the six groups. He reported that, in total, their posts had been shared more than 340 million times.

X

To McNamee, the way the Russians used the platform was neither a surprise nor an anomaly. “They find 100 or 1,000 people who are angry and afraid and then use Facebook’s tools to advertise to get people into groups,” he says. “That’s exactly how Facebook was designed to be used.”McNamee and Harris had first traveled to DC for a day in July to meet with members of Congress. Then, in September, they were joined by DiResta and began spending all their free time counseling senators, representatives, and members of their staffs. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were about to hold hearings on Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the US election, and McNamee, Harris, and ­DiResta were helping them prepare. One of the early questions they weighed in on was the matter of who should be summoned to testify. Harris recommended that the CEOs of the big tech companies be called in, to create a dramatic scene in which they all stood in a neat row swearing an oath with their right hands in the air, roughly the way tobacco executives had been forced to do a generation earlier. Ultimately, though, it was determined that the general counsels of the three companies—Facebook, Twitter, and Google—should head into the lion’s den.And so on November 1, Colin Stretch arrived from Facebook to be pummeled. During the hearings themselves, DiResta was sitting on her bed in San Francisco, watching them with her headphones on, trying not to wake up her small children. She listened to the back-and-forth in Washington while chatting on Slack with other security researchers. She watched as Marco Rubio smartly asked whether Facebook even had a policy forbidding foreign governments from running an influence campaign through the platform. The answer was no. Rhode Island senator Jack Reed then asked whether Facebook felt an obligation to individually notify all the users who had seen Russian ads that they had been deceived. The answer again was no. But maybe the most threatening comment came from Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from Facebook’s home state. “You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it,” she declared. “Or we will.”

After the hearings, yet another dam seemed to break, and former Facebook executives started to go public with their criticisms of the company too. On November 8, billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, said he now regretted pushing Facebook so hard on the world. “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying,” he said. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Eleven days later, Facebook’s former privacy manager, Sandy Parakilas, published a New York Times op-ed calling for the government to regulate Facebook: “The company won’t protect us by itself, and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.”

XI

The day of the hearings, Zuckerberg had to give Facebook’s Q3 earnings call. The numbers were terrific, as always, but his mood was not. Normally these calls can put someone with 12 cups of coffee in them to sleep; the executive gets on and says everything is going well, even when it isn’t. Zuckerberg took a different approach. “I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust. We build these tools to help people connect and to bring us closer together. And they used them to try to undermine our values. What they did is wrong, and we are not going to stand for it.” The company would be investing so much in security, he said, that Facebook would make “significantly” less money for a while. “I want to be clear about what our priority is: Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.” What the company really seeks is for users to find their experience to be “time well spent,” Zuckerberg said—using the three words that have become Tristan Harris’ calling card, and the name of his nonprofit.Other signs emerged, too, that Zuckerberg was beginning to absorb the criticisms of his company. The Facebook Journalism Project, for instance, seemed to be making the company take its obligations as a publisher, and not just a platform, more seriously. In the fall, the company announced that Zuckerberg had decided—after years of resisting the idea—that publishers using Facebook Instant Articles could require readers to subscribe. Paying for serious publications, in the months since the election, had come to seem like both the path forward for journalism and a way of resisting the post-truth political landscape. (WIRED recently instituted its own paywall.) Plus, offering subscriptions arguably helped put in place the kinds of incentives that Zuckerberg professed to want driving the platform. People like Alex Hardiman, the head of Facebook news products and an alum of The New York Times, started to recognize that Facebook had long helped to create an economic system that rewarded publishers for sensationalism, not accuracy or depth. “If we just reward content based on raw clicks and engagement, we might actually see content that is increasingly sensationalist, clickbaity, polarizing, and divisive,” she says. A social network that rewards only clicks, not subscriptions, is like a dating service that encourages one-night stands but not marriages.

XII

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving 2017, Zuckerberg called one of his quarterly all-hands meetings on the Facebook campus, in an outdoor space known as Hacker Square. He told everyone he hoped they would have a good holiday. Then he said, “This year, with recent news, a lot of us are probably going to get asked: ‘What is going on with Facebook?’ This has been a tough year … but … what I know is that we’re fortunate to play an important role in billions of people’s lives. That’s a privilege, and it puts an enormous responsibility on all of us.” According to one attendee, the remarks came across as blunter and more personal than any they’d ever heard from Zuckerberg. He seemed humble, even a little chastened. “I don’t think he sleeps well at night,” the employee says. “I think he has remorse for what has happened.”During the late fall, criticism continued to mount: Facebook was accused of becoming a central vector for spreading deadly propaganda against the Rohingya in Myanmar and for propping up the brutal leadership of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. And December brought another haymaker from someone closer by. Early that month, it emerged that Chamath Palihapitiya, who had been Facebook’s vice president for user growth before leaving in 2011, had told an audience at Stanford that he thought social media platforms like Facebook had “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric” and that he feels “tremendous guilt” for being part of that. He said he tries to use Facebook as little as possible and doesn’t permit his children to use such platforms at all.The criticism stung in a way that others hadn’t. Palihapitiya is close to many of the top executives at Facebook, and he has deep cachet in Silicon Valley and among Facebook engineers as a part-owner of the Golden State Warriors. Sheryl Sandberg sometimes wears a chain around her neck that’s welded together from one given to her by Zuckerberg and one given to her by Palihapitiya after her husband’s death. The company issued a statement saying it had been a long time since Palihapitiya had worked there. “Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too.” Asked why the company had responded to Palihapitiya, and not to others, a senior Facebook executive said, “Chamath is—was—a friend to a lot of people here.”

Roger McNamee, meanwhile, went on a media tour lambasting the company. He published an essay in Washington Monthly and then followed up in The Washington Post and The Guardian. Facebook was less impressed with him. Executives considered him to be overstating his connection to the company and dining out on his criticism. Andrew Bos­worth, a VP and member of the management team, tweeted, “I’ve worked at Facebook for 12 years and I have to ask: Who the fuck is Roger McNamee?”

Zuckerberg did seem to be eager to mend one fence, though. Around this time, a team of Facebook executives gathered for dinner with executives from News Corp at the Grill, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. Right at the start, Zuckerberg raised a toast to Murdoch. He spoke charmingly about reading a biography of the older man and of admiring his accomplishments. Then he described a game of tennis he’d once played against Murdoch. At first he had thought it would be easy to hit the ball with a man more than 50 years his senior. But he quickly realized, he said, that Murdoch was there to compete.

XIII

On January 4, 2018, Zuckerberg announced that he had a new personal challenge for the year. For each of the past nine years, he had committed himself to some kind of self-improvement. His first challenge was farcical—wear ties—and the others had been a little preening and collegiate. He wanted to learn Mandarin, read 25 books, run 365 miles. This year, though, he took a severe tone. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do—whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation-states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,” Zuckerberg declared. The language wasn’t original—he had borrowed from Tristan Harris again—but it was, by the accounts of many people around him, entirely sincere.That New Year’s challenge, it turned out, was a bit of carefully considered choreography setting up a series of announcements, starting with a declaration the following week that the News Feed algorithm would be rejiggered to favor “meaningful interactions.” Posts and videos of the sort that make us look or like—but not comment or care—would be deprioritized. The idea, explained Adam Mosseri, is that, online, “interacting with people is positively correlated with a lot of measures of well-being, whereas passively consuming content online is less so.”To many people at the company, the announcement marked a huge departure. Facebook was putting a car in reverse that had been driving at full speed in one direction for 14 years. Since the beginning, Zuckerberg’s ambition had been to create another internet, or perhaps another world, inside of Facebook, and to get people to use it as much as possible. The business model was based on advertising, and advertising was insatiably hungry for people’s time. But now Zuckerberg said he expected these new changes to News Feed would make people use Facebook less.

The announcement was hammered by many in the press. During the rollout, Mosseri explained that Facebook would downgrade stories shared by businesses, celebrities, and publishers, and prioritize stories shared by friends and family. Critics surmised that these changes were just a way of finally giving the publishing industry a middle finger. “Facebook has essentially told media to kiss off,” Franklin Foer wrote in The Atlantic. “Facebook will be back primarily in the business of making us feel bad about the inferiority of our vacations, the relative mediocrity of our children, teasing us into sharing more of our private selves.”

 

People who know him say Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months.

But inside Facebook, executives insist this isn’t remotely the case. According to Anker, who retired from the company in December but worked on these changes, and who has great affection for the management team, “It would be a mistake to see this as a retreat from the news industry. This is a retreat from ‘Anything goes if it works with our algorithm to drive up engagement.’” According to others still at the company, Zuckerberg didn’t want to pull back from actual journalism. He just genuinely wanted there to be less crap on the platform: fewer stories with no substance; fewer videos you can watch without engaging your brain.

And then, a week after telling the world about “meaningful interactions,” Zuckerberg announced another adjustment that seemed to address these concerns, after a fashion. For the first time in the company’s history, he said in a note posted to his personal page, Facebook will begin boosting certain publishers—ones whose content is “trustworthy, informative, and local.” For the past year, Facebook has been developing algorithms to hammer publishers whose content is fake; now it’s trying to elevate what’s good. For starters, he explained, the company would use reader surveys to determine which sources are trustworthy. That system, critics were quick to point out, will surely be gamed, and many people will say they trust sources just because they recognize them. But this announcement, at least, went over a little better in boardrooms and newsrooms. Right after the post went up, the stock price of The New York Times shot up—as did that of News Corp.

Zuckerberg has hinted—and insiders have confirmed—that we should expect a year of more announcements like this. The company is experimenting with giving publishers more control over paywalls and allowing them to feature their logos more prominently to reestablish the brand identities that Facebook flattened years ago. One somewhat hostile outside suggestion has come from Facebook’s old antagonist Murdoch, who said in late January that if Facebook truly valued “trustworthy” publishers, it should pay them carriage fees.

The fate that Facebook really cares about, however, is its own. It was built on the power of network effects: You joined because everyone else was joining. But network effects can be just as powerful in driving people off a platform. Zuckerberg understands this viscerally. After all, he helped create those problems for MySpace a decade ago and is arguably doing the same to Snap today. Zuckerberg has avoided that fate, in part, because he has proven brilliant at co-opting his biggest threats. When social media started becoming driven by images, he bought Instagram. When messaging took off, he bought WhatsApp. When Snapchat became a threat, he copied it. Now, with all his talk of “time well spent,” it seems as if he’s trying to co-opt Tristan Harris too.

But people who know him say that Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months. He has thought deeply; he has reckoned with what happened; and he truly cares that his company fix the vortex of problems swirling around it. And he’s also concerned. “This entire year has hugely changed his personal techno-­optimism,” says an executive at the company. “It has made him much more paranoid about the ways that people could abuse the thing that he built.”

The past year has also altered Facebook’s fundamental understanding about whether it’s a publisher or a platform. The company has always answered that question defiantly—platform, platform,etc.etc.etc—for regulatory, financial, and maybe even emotional reasons. But now, gradually, Facebook has evolved. Of course it’s a platform, and always will be. But the company also realizes now that it bears some of the responsibilities that a publisher does: for the care of its readers, and caring of the truth. You can’t make the world more open and connected if you’re breaking it apart. So what is it: publisher or platform? Facebook seems to have finally understood that it is quite clearly both.

Henry Sapiecha


Inside Facebook


Nicholas Thompson (@nxthompson) is WIRED’s editor in chief. Fred Vogelstein (@­fvogelstein) is a contributing editor at the magazine.

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HONG KONG (Reuters) – China’s biggest social network and gaming firm Tencent Holdings, which last week reported forecast-beating quarterly results, is close to making Malaysia the first foreign country to roll out its WeChat ecosystem, an executive told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Tencent’s booth is pictured at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) 2017 in Beijing, China April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
If you’re using a messaging app in China, chances are it’s owned by Tencent – a leading provider of web-based services in China that owns WeChat, as well as a whole host of social media platforms, entertainment subsidiaries and payment services. With an increasing amount of global brand awareness, the time had come for Tencent to expand its corporate typographic voice in line with its ambitions. The company approached Monotype to design a bespoke typeface, based on its existing logo, that could convey its vision of “innovation, responsibility and enablement”.

Tencent has made a “breakthrough” in gaining an e-payment license in Malaysia for local transactions, and plans a launch early next year, senior vice president S.Y. Lau said in an interview.

The move pits Shenzhen-based Tencent against rival Alibaba Group as they scramble for new growth opportunities outside China. Tencent this week became the first Asian firm to enter the club of companies worth more than $500 billion, and on Tuesday surpassed Facebook in market value.

“Malaysia is actually quite large in the sense that we have 20 million WeChat users, huge potential, and the market is quite warm towards internet products from China,” Lau said.

Southeast Asia, home to more than 600 million people and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has been a key battleground for China’s tech titans fighting for deals. Ethnic Chinese make up more than a fifth of Malaysia’s population.

WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, which dominate China’s digital payment market, have sought to expand their global footprint, although that push has so far been limited to payment services for Chinese outbound tourists. They can scan-and-pay for purchases in 34 countries or regions via Alipay and 13 via WeChat Pay, according to the companies.

Alipay’s parent company Ant Financial has joint ventures in seven markets for local digital payments services, which operate independently under the partnerships’ brand names.

Alibaba is looking to build a global payment system, while Tencent is more interested in generating traffic for WeChat – two different strategies, some bankers and investors say.

WeChat has more users, but Alipay’s aggregate transaction volume is higher, according to JP Morgan’s John Hall, though other investors note that WeChat Pay can also process large transactions if it’s used on e-commerce platforms.

GLOBAL EXPANSION

One challenge for Tencent, say analysts, is that its success in China cannot be easily exported to other markets.

Tencent is “not in a hurry” to speed up its overseas expansion or increase the monetization rate of its digital assets, Lau said.

“We walk our own path at our own pace … and, to be honest, there is really quite a lot to do in China,” he said.

WeChat, which has ballooned from a messaging app to an all-in-one platform with 980 million monthly active users, could be the “killer product” to spearhead expansion abroad, Lau said, as its embedded payment function draws more services.

WeChat, with an open platform of mini-programs, was a key revenue contributor for Tencent in the third quarter. Social and other advertising revenue rose 63 percent, while payment and cloud helped “other business” post a 143 percent jump

“Honour of Kings”, Tencent’s top-grossing battle game that led an 84 percent increase in quarterly smartphone gaming revenue, also owes its success to the network help of WeChat, and is expected to find it tougher to crack Western markets, analysts say.

Tencent this month delayed the launch of the game’s U.S. edition, “Arena of Valor”, to next year to “further polish additional gameplay and social features”.

After games and social media, most of Tencent’s other businesses are in digital content, including Spotify equivalent Tencent Music and YouTube equivalent Tencent Video, which also makes its own dramas.

CULTURE CHALLENGE

Lau said the ultimate aim was to export culture from China to the rest of the world, rather than the other way round, which he acknowledged was challenging.

“What we’re aiming to create is ‘super IPs’ (intellectual property) that leverage our different businesses from upstream to downstream,” Lau said, citing Disneyland and the James Bond movies as successful practices in the West.

A big business for Tencent’s recently listed publishing arm, China Literature, is to sell its popular novels and have them turned into dramas and video games by Tencent’s other business lines.

Tencent this month announced a plan involving 10 billion yuan ($1.51 billion) of investment to boost its creative content ecosystem, though it gave no time frame for the investment.

Company president Martin Lau – no relation to S.Y. – said on an earnings call last week that Tencent would keep investing in digital content, especially online video, to draw more time from more paying customers.

RELATED VIDEO

Overseas acquisitions will remain a key way of enhancing Tencent’s global access and competitiveness, S.Y. Lau said.

Independent technology analyst Richard Windsor said Tencent’s 2016 acquisition of Supercell gave it a strong position in gaming, while the move to buy a stake in social media firm Snapchat is another piece in the jigsaw.

“It increasingly looks as if Tencent is embarking on a circumnavigation of the digital life pie in order to build an ecosystem to challenge the Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook dominance of consumer digital services,” he said, noting it’s at a “super early stage” in that process.

Tencent will likely seek more overseas acquisitions, Windsor added, which, beyond being expensive, could challenge Tencent in integrating all its digital assets at home and abroad.

Tencent has struggled to monetize its dominance over the Chinese digital life, he said, adding that’s why he sees more upside in Tencent’s market valuation, and prefers it to Alibaba.

Henry Sapiecha

As Facebook tries to conquer the workplace, it not only has to convince businesses that the new tool is worth paying for, but it’s also competing with similar services such as Slack and Microsoft’s Yammer. 

It looks similar to a person’s personal Facebook, but users aren’t browsing the social network for cat videos or engagement photos

ooofacebook-workplace-screen-pic image www.socialselect.net

Instead, they’re interacting with their co-workers or business partners eve hen they’re on the move.

“The workplace is about more than just communicating between desks within thatement.

The tech firm is charging companies a monthly fee per active user to use the product. Workplace, which is available on desktop and mobile, costs$US3 a user for the first 1000 monthly active users, $US2 a user for 1001 to 10,000 monthly active users and $US1 a user for more than 10,000 monthly active usrs.

As Facebook tries to conquer the workplace, it not only has to convince businesses that the new tool is worth paying for, but it’s also competing with similar services such as Slack and Microsoft’s Yammer.

While Facebook is charging a lower price than its competitors, it might still be tough sell to businesses who fear that social media could fuel more negativity in the workplace or make them more vulnerable to legal risks. But it could appeal to younger workers who are more used to communicating electronically than face to face.

For Facebook, Workplace also gives the tech firm a way to grow its revenue outside of mobile ads.

The tech firm has been testing the product, formerly known as Facebook at Work, globally for more than a year. More than 1000 organisations worldwide, including Starbucks, YES Bank of India and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore have been piloting Workplace.

It includes features such as live video, work chat, trending posts, analytics and other tools. Workplace also allows companies to create “Multi-company groups” so employees from different organisations can work together. Workplace is separated from an employee’s personal Facebook.

More than 100,000 groups have been created in Workplace and the tool has been the most popular in India, Norway, the United States, United Kingdom and France.

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Henry Sapiecha

 

September 20th, 2016 TWEETS, TWITTER none Comments

Twitter has announced that, as of now, media extras such as photos, GIFs, and videos — along with quoted tweets and user polls — will no longer contribute to the 140-character limit per tweet.

While the change will no doubt be welcomed by users, it makes up only part of the improvement’s Twitter promised would be forthcoming in May

twitter-screen-pic image www.solcialselect.net

Twitter turns ten, are investors turning off?

Twitter celebrates its 10th birthday with a falling share price and stalled monthly active user growth.

Excluded from today’s update was the removal of counting usernames in a reply or mention toward the 140-character limit. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company is currently testing this feature and will be introducing it to a small group of users in the coming weeks before rolling it out to everyone. She did not confirm a specific date for the update.

In its May blog entry, Twitter said the new features would help users “do even more” with their tweets. “We’re exploring ways to make existing uses easier and enable new ones, all without compromising the unique brevity and speed that make Twitter the best place for live commentary, connections, and conversations,” the blog post states.

Images and other media no longer count towards the 140 character limit. 

In a demonstration video for how the replies function will soon look, “@username” is replaced with a thread line that shows different tweets in a conversation. The names of users involved in the conversation are displayed above the tweet after the text “replying to.”

Another feature in the May blog post missing from Monday’s rollout was the update that would make all replies appear on a user’s feed, making it unnecessary to use “.@” when trying to display replies to a user’s audience. Twitter did not confirm if this feature is being tested or when users can expect it in the future.

The Washington Post

Hot_Russian_300_250

Henry Sapiecha

Mark Zuckerberg image www.socialselect.net

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg briefly found his Twitter account hijacked, as were at least two of his other social media accounts.

Zuckerberg’s Facebook account and password were not compromised, the company said in a statement; his account on Facebook-owned Instagram was also unaffected. Facebook Inc. said Monday morning that none of the company’s systems or accounts were accessed and that Zuckerberg’s affected accounts have since been re-secured.

A person close to the situation confirmed that Zuckerberg’s LinkedIn and Pinterest accounts also were affected. Officials for both of those social media networks didn’t immediate respond to requests for comment.

Screenshots preserved by the technology website Engadget showed someone with access to his largely dormant Twitter account using it to say Zuckerberg was “in the LinkedIn database” and inviting the social media mogul to get in touch. LinkedIn declined to comment.

It’s not yet clear how the hack happened, although a spate of massive data breaches at companies — along with recent news that a 2012 breach at LinkedIn Corp. was much bigger that previously disclosed — has recently given hackers a wealth of password data to work with. Several high profile Twitter users have also had their accounts hijacked in recent weeks.

Zuckerberg’s name is synonymous with Facebook, but the billionaire has several accounts on rival social networks, including one registered with Google Inc. None appear very active.

GJK

Henry Sapiecha

prison pic-bars image www.crimefiles (17)

Anastasia Bubeyeva shows a screenshot on her computer of a picture of a toothpaste tube with the words: “Squeeze Russia out of yourself!” For sharing this picture on a social media site with his 12 friends, her husband was sentenced this month to more than two years in prison.

As the Kremlin claims unequivocal support among Russians for its policies both at home and abroad, a crackdown is underway against ordinary social media users who post things that run against the official narrative. Here the Kremlin’s interests coincide with those of investigators, who are anxious to report high conviction rates for extremism. The Kremlin didn’t immediately comment on the issue.

At least 54 people were sent to prison for hate speech last year, most of them for sharing and posting things online, which is almost five times as many as five years ago, according to the Moscow-based Sova group, which studies human rights, nationalism and xenophobia in Russia. The overall number of convictions for hate speech in Russia increased to 233 last year from 92 in 2010.

A 2002 Russian law defines extremism as activities that aim to undermine the nation’s security or constitutional order, or glorify terrorism or racism, as well as calling for others to do so. The vagueness of the phrasing and the scope of offenses that fall under the extremism clause allow for the prosecution of a wide range of people, from those who set up an extremist cell or display Nazi symbols to anyone who writes something online that could be deemed a danger to the state. In the end, it’s up to the court to decide whether a social media post poses a danger to the nation or not.

In February 2014, when Ukraine was in the middle of a pro-European revolution, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill tightening penalties for non-violent extremist crimes such as hate speech. In July of that year, three months after Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula, he signed a bill making calls “to destroy” Russia’s territorial integrity a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison. The new amendment makes the denial of Russia’s claims on Crimea an even greater offense if the statement is made in the press or online, even on a private social media account.

Many of the shares that led to the recent rash of convictions were of things critical of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

This was true of the articles and images shared by Bubeyeva’s husband, a 40-year-old electrician from Tver, a sleepy provincial capital halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“Andrei Bubeyev thinks that he was charged as an example so that other ordinary citizens would be discouraged from expressing their opinion,” said his lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina.

Bubeyev spent a lot of time online, sharing links to various articles on his VKontakte page and engaging in political debates on local news websites, his wife says.

In spring 2015, he left town to work on a rural construction site. After investigators couldn’t get through to him on the phone, they put him on a wanted list as an extremism suspect. When Bubeyev stopped by to visit his wife and young son at their country cottage, a SWAT team stormed in and arrested him.

His wife now lives alone with their 4-year-old son in a sparsely furnished apartment on the ground floor of a drab Soviet-era apartment block. After her husband was arrested, Anastasia Bubeyeva, 23, dropped out of medical school because she couldn’t find affordable day care for her child, who still wears an eye patch for an injury he suffered when he bumped his head during the raid.

Several months after his arrest, Bubeyev pleaded guilty to inciting hatred toward Russians and was sentenced to a year in prison. His offense was sharing articles, photos and videos from Ukrainian nationalist groups, including those of the volunteer Azov battalion fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Among them was an article about the graves of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and a video describing Russia as a “fascist aggressor” and showing Russian tanks purportedly crossing into Ukraine.

Less than two weeks after the verdict, Bubeyev was charged again. This time, he was accused of calling for “acts of extremism” and “actions undermining Russia’s territorial integrity.” He had shared the picture of a toothpaste tube and also an article under the headline “Crimea is Ukraine” by a controversial blogger, who is in jail now, calling for military aggression against Russia.

“He was interested in politics, read the news, shared things, but he did it for himself. It was like collecting newspaper clippings,” his wife said. “His page wasn’t popular — he only had 12 friends. He couldn’t have aimed to coerce anyone into anything.”

The new charges were soon followed by a damning report on local television station Tverskoi Prospekt. The program showed an anonymous blogger complaining about social media users who voiced their support for Ukrainian troops and were “ready to back a coup in Russia and take up arms and kill people as the Nazis did.” The television report claimed that the blogger’s complaint had prompted the prosecution of the electrician.

On May 6, Bubeyev was convicted and sentenced to two years and three months in prison.

Also this month, a court in the Caspian Sea city of Astrakhan sentenced a man to two years in prison for his social media posts urging Ukrainians to fight “Putin’s occupying forces.”

In December, a court in Siberia sentenced a man to five years in prison for “inciting hatred” toward residents of eastern Ukraine in his video posts. In October, a court in southern Russia sent a political activist to prison for two years for an unsanctioned picket and posts on social media criticizing Putin and calling for southern Russia to join Ukraine.

The articles, photos and videos that landed Bubeyev in prison were posted on his page on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social media network with 270 million accounts.

VKontakte founder Pavel Durov sold the site and fled Russia in 2014, claiming that he had come under pressure from the security services for VKontakte to disclose personal data of the users of a group linked to a protest movement in Ukraine. The company is now controlled by the media holding of Kremlin-friendly billionaire Alisher Usmanov.

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova group, says roughly half of the convictions of hate speech online are about posts on VKontakte, which he said might be because its administration might be easier for the Russian police to deal with than that of foreign-owned social media.

Bubeyev’s defense claimed that the privacy settlings on his account made the articles he shared available only to him and his 12 friends. Sidorkina, his lawyer, said she has no explanation for how the security services found his posts unless they received the credentials to his account from VKontakte.

VKontakte declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

Russia faced a surge of racially motivated attacks against Central Asian migrant workers in the 2000s, but the crime rates dropped drastically after dozens of neo-Nazis got lengthy prison sentences for extremism.

Rights activists and lawyers who have worked on extremism cases say the drop in violent hate crimes sent police and investigators scrambling to prosecute people for non-violent offenses to show a solid record of tackling extremism.

The Moscow-based Center for Economic and Political Reform said in a 23-page report on extremism law released this month that most convictions for this type of crime resulted in fines or a few days in custody, with the aim of boosting the crime statistics.

But as tensions with neighboring Ukraine heated up, courts across Russia began to hand out more and more prison sentences for hate speech, the report said.

Many of the hate speech convictions do deal with dubious content, but the severity of the punishment doesn’t seem to correspond to the level of public danger posed, said Verkhovsky of Sova.

“These cases are very arbitrary because there are lots more people out there who have done the same thing. Such enforcement of the law does not address or combat radical activities,” he said. “No one knows where the red line is: It’s like roulette.”

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Henry Sapiecha

OMG, Facebook adds reaction emojis

Facebook’s “like” button isn’t going away, but it’s about to get some company.

Facebook has now officially added a select group of emoticons to allow users to react to posts – without having to use anything as old fashioned as, you know, actual words.

The social network rolled out “Reactions” – an extension of the “Like” button – worldwide on Wednesday, allowing people to display quick reactions such as sadness, anger and love.

In a video accompanying a blog post, the five new buttons appear as animated emoticons that pop up when the “Like” button is held down on mobile devices. The buttons appear on desktops when users hover over the “Like” button.

reactions buttons facebook-image www.socialselect.net

The new emoji-like stickers Facebook users can press in addition to the ‘like’ button. Photo: Mary Altaffer

Facebook launched a pilot of “Reactions” – which allowed users to select from seven emotions including “Angry”, “Sad”, “Wow” and “Like” – in Ireland and Spain in October.
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The “Yay” emoticon, which was present in the pilot launch, was not seen in Wednesday’s video.

The company will also use “Reactions” to track user behaviour and for ad delivery.

“We will initially use any Reaction similar to a Like to infer that you want to see more of that type of content,” Facebook said in separate blog post.

Facebook said that over time it hoped to learn how different “Reactions” should be weighted differently by the Facebook News Feed to customise it for individual users. Facebook said “Reactions” would have the same impact on ad delivery as “Likes”.

The feature received mixed reviews from users on social networking sites.

Many complained that they could not see the new emoticons, while some were unhappy that Facebook did not launch a “dislike” button. Others expressed concern that the feature would lead to diminished use of language and less interaction.

“Great, now you don’t even have to offer actual words, just a freaking emoji. What’s the point in learning a language at all then?,” Candice Johnson wrote on the social network.

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Henry Sapiecha

black diamonds on white line

February 2nd, 2016 ADVERTISING none Comments

stick men -forum sign image www.socialselect.net

Social media works but brands need to be bold if they want to stand out, according to Publicis Pusher’s MD, Kim Hopwood.

Social has come under fire at late with marketing professor Mark Ritson questioning the flood of ad dollars flowing to social, without being backed up by ROI.

Hopwood was speaking to AdNews following its recent social media campaign for the Australia Day Council of NSW, which is a “social media first” for the brand.

Publicis Pusher used its ‘Newsdesk’ tool – a real-time social media newsroom – for the Australia Day Council of NSW, to engage with people celebrating Australia Day.

The campaign had no paid media and according to preliminary tallies clocked up more than 400,000 conversations on the day and 8,000,000 impressions across social media.

“You need to be bold on social media, because it’s easy to be wallpaper,” Hopwood says.

“But the results of this are speaking for themselves. Newsdesk allows us to amplify things without media investment.”

The Newsdesk tool has been part of Publicis globally for more than 18 months but rolled out locally at the end of last year.

Publicis Pusher was created in November 2014 when Publicis acquired digital agency Pusher.

While Newsdesk is aimed primarily for mass-scale events, it can be also used for always-on marketing and even crisis management.

Hopwood says while it’s “early days” the tool has already proved popular with brands including Garnier, by tapping into marketer demand for real-time communications.

For the Australia Day campaign, a team of 12, including four community managers, two content producers, four creatives and two strategists, used a suite of tools to identify relevant conversations and respond at scale in real time.

In addition, content from the campaign engaged more than 110,000 people across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and engaged conversations with influencers including the President of India Pranab Mukherjee and singer Recce Mastin.

“The benefit is being able to respond to people and give a better customer experience on the day,” Hopwood says.

“When we’re talking about customers for Australia Day we’re talking about citizens. Australia Day is a celebration of our nation, the government invests a lot in making sure we get the most out of our day and we’re adding in a layer of customer service.”

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Henry Sapiecha

dopey-email-address image www.socialselect.net

Whimsy and flamboyance is all well and good, but your choice of email address has the potential to hurt you professionally

My little sister used to have a ridiculous email address. I won’t tell you it exactly – I don’t want to flood her inbox – but it was something similar to “these_fish_have_bowties@example.com”. I asked her about it a few times, and she said it was an inside joke between her and her friends.

I see these kinds of email addresses all the time with my students. (Put your hand up if you have one too…)

for_shizzle_2121@example.com

supa_boy_92@example.com

bieber_lover_2@example.com

Whimsy and flamboyance is all well and good, but your choice of email address has the potential to hurt you professionally. If you choose not to be serious, well – it shouldn’t be any surprise if people don’t take you seriously.

What I’m talking about is looking a little more professional for things like applying for a job. It’s fine if your friends know you as “ugly_terrano123@example.com”, but do you really want that as your first impression? It’s a bit like wearing thongs to a wedding.

Take some extra time to make a new email address today for all your formal, professional correspondence. A good bet is your firstname.middleinitial.lastname. If you have a common name, you might have to get creative, but again, don’t go overboard. Try different combinations of periods and underscores. For example Jon Smith could try:

  • JonSmith@example.com
  • Jon.Smith@example.com
  • Jonathan.Smith@example.com
  • Jonathan.R.Smith@example.com
  • Jonathan_Smith@example.com
  • Jon.Smith.Australia@example.com

A little creativity and a touch of perseverance and you’ll find one that’s available.

Use Gmail or Yahoo mail or Microsoft’s Outlook.com.  Avoid more exotic (and less professional looking) providers.

If you’re more technically minded, you might even consider getting your own domain. A domain (web address) is fairly cheap. If you shop around, a .com would cost you under $15 a year.

However, a .com.au has a few restrictions on it, most notably you need an ABN. An alternative would be an id.au. These domains are intended to be used by Australian individuals. Again, you should be able to get one for around $15 a year. I think “john@john.smith.id.au” looks much more professional that “that_smithy_boyee@example.com”.

Search for “gmail for your own domain” if you want to hook up your own custom email address to Gmail. It’s not too hard and you won’t have to pay extra for cloud storage of all those new emails you’ll be receiving.

My sister eventually gave up her fishy email address. It served her into university, but she was embarrassed filling out job applications after graduating. She found out that nobody would take “these_fish_have_bowties” seriously.

None of the addresses used in this article are the email addresses of real people.

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Henry Sapiecha

Pakistani troops stand guard after the murder of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer, who criticised the country's blasphemy laws image www.socialselect.net

Pakistani troops stand guard after the murder of Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer, who criticised the country’s blasphemy laws. Photo: AP

​LAHORE, Pakistan: Late one night, the imam Shabir Ahmad looked up from prayers at his mosque to see a 15-year-old boy approaching with a plate in his outstretched left hand. On it was the boy’s freshly severed right hand.

Ahmad did not hesitate. He fled the mosque and left the village, in eastern Punjab province.

Earlier that night, January 10, he had denounced the boy as a blasphemer, an accusation that in Pakistan can get a person killed – even when the accusation is false, as it was in this case.

The boy, Anwar Ali, the devout son of a poor labourer, had been attending an evening prayer gathering at the mosque in the village of Khanqah when Ahmad asked for a show of hands of those who did not love the Prophet Muhammad. Thinking the cleric had asked for those who did love the prophet, Anwar’s hand shot up, according to witnesses and the boy’s family.

He realised his mistake when he saw that his was the only hand up, and he quickly put it down. But by then Ahmad was screaming “Blasphemer!” at him, along with many others in the crowd. “Don’t you love your prophet?” they called, as the boy fled in disgrace.

Anwar went home, found a sharp scythe and chopped off his right hand that same night. When he showed it to the cleric, he made clear it was an offering to absolve his perceived sin.

The police quickly caught the mullah and locked him up, but local religious leaders protested, and the authorities backed down and released him. After the international news media began picking up on the story over the weekend, the authorities rearrested Ahmad on Sunday, holding him on terrorism and other charges.

“There is no physical evidence against the cleric of involvement, but he has been charged for inciting and arousing the emotions of people to such a level that the boy did this act,” the district police chief, Faisal Rana, said.

The boy’s family, however, argues that the cleric did nothing wrong and should not be punished.

“We are lucky that we have this son who loves Prophet Muhammad that much,” Muhammad Ghafoor, Anwar’s father, said in a telephone interview. “We will be rewarded by God for this in the eternal world.”

Anwar, too, declined to make any charge against the mullah. “What I did was for love of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.

Blasphemy is a toxic subject in Pakistan, where a confusing body of laws has enshrined it as a potentially capital offence but also makes it nearly impossible for the accused to defend themselves in court. Even publicly repeating details of the accusation is tantamount to blasphemy in its own right.

Such cases almost never make it to court, however. The merest accusation that blasphemy has occurred has the power to arouse lynching or mob violence.

The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011, after Taseer criticised the country’s blasphemy laws and defended a Christian woman who had been falsely accused under them. The assassin is a national hero to many devout Pakistanis: His jail cell has become a pilgrimage site, and a mosque was renamed to honour him.

On Monday, Pakistan lifted a three-year-old ban on YouTube, which it had shut down because of accusations of airing anti-Islamic videos. The government announced that Google, which owns YouTube, had agreed to give it the right to block objectionable content. The Pakistani government blocks thousands of web pages it considers offensive.

“We have become a society so intoxicated by negative things in the name of religion that parents feel proud of sending their children to jihad and to die in the name of such activities,” said I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “The government needs to do more to educate people and to speak out against extremism.”

Anwar Ali did not even go to a hospital after his amputation, but had his right arm’s stump bandaged at a village clinic and went home. Family members buried his hand in the village graveyard.

The New York Times

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Henry Sapiecha

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