Facebook obsessively monitored perception of itself on the platform using tools with names like Night’s Watch, prioritizing its response to these ‘fake news’ over hoaxes with real-world consequences, according to former employees.
Facebook used a dedicated software program called Stormchaser to track viral negative rumors and hoaxes about itself, both on Facebook and on WhatsApp, according to former employees who spoke to Bloomberg. Users who shared the offending information might be greeted with a friendly rebuttal from Facebook itself informing them that the rumor they’d just shared was not true.
These “quick promotions” were deployed as far back as 2015 to counter a number of persistent rumors about Facebook that the social networking platform claims are false, including the stubborn but always-denied allegation that Facebook listens to users through their phone’s microphone and a copy-paste hoax that went viral in the Philippines that threatened users with Facebook leaking their personal info if they didn’t share the threat with all of their friends.
Facebook also mulled serving quick proposals to US users to tell them the platform was focused on the “fake news” problem and instruct them in how to report misinformation. And Facebook was focused on fake news, as long as the fake news involved Facebook – Stormchaser even tracked joke memes claiming CEO Mark Zuckerberg was an alien, according to one former employee.
While the program arguably showed Facebook’s priorities were a bit skewed – hoaxes spread on the platform and its subsidiaries have led to violence and deaths in India and Myanmar – a company spokeswoman took issue with the suggestion that Facebook should have used Stormchaser to fight misinformation about outside issues, arguing “that wasn’t what it was built for, and it wouldn’t have worked.”
Another program, called Night’s Watch (after the TV show Game of Thrones) allowed Facebook to observe how news stories about itself spread, both on Facebook itself and on WhatsApp, even though the latter is supposed to be encrypted. It has since been supplanted by public perception polls, which continue to track – some would say obsessively – public perception of Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
More ominously, Stormchaser was used to track the #deleteFacebook protests, though no one has claimed the company served up any quick promotions to those users warning them against spreading the subversive meme. If they had, they might look something like the warnings that Facebook subsidiary Instagram has reportedly begun serving to users who compose “offensive” comments before they’re allowed to post them: “Are you sure you want to post this?” It’s one small step to 2001: A Space Odyssey: “I’m afraid I can’t let you post this, Dave.”