WSJ US BusinessFacebook Slows New Products to Examine Possible Impact

October 6, 20210
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Facebook Inc. has delayed the rollout of new products in recent days, people familiar with the matter said, amid media reports and congressional hearings related to a trove of internal documents showing harms from its platforms.

Executives at the social-media company also have put a hold on some work on new and existing products while more than a dozen people are involved in conducting “reputational reviews” to examine how Facebook may be criticized and to ensure products don’t adversely impact children, the people said.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said he has asked leaders to do deep dives on work across the company over the next few days and committed to continuing research into the company’s products.

“I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids,” he wrote.

This follows Facebook’s announcement last week that it would pause plans for its Instagram Kids product after lawmakers and others voiced concerns about the photo-sharing platform’s effects on young people’s mental health. Facebook has announced features for existing services, such as Facebook Gaming, in recent days.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen detailed the internal documents she gathered showing negative impacts from the company’s products and urged lawmakers to consider tougher regulations. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News

Facebook is responding to questions from the public, lawmakers from both parties, and others over how its platforms operate and what effects they have on users and society at large.

The scrutiny follows The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series, which included an article showing the company’s internal research found Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of young users, particularly teenage girls with body-image concerns.

The company has published a number of blog posts saying the research was taken out of context.

Mr. Zuckerberg weighed in on the controversy for the first time publicly Tuesday night, saying the Journal’s reporting painted a “false picture” of Facebook and its priorities. The Journal has said it stands behind its reporting.

Facebook’s pledge to continue its research into potential harms comes in the wake of criticism from academics and some former employees that the company should share more data about how its platforms operate and affect users so those issues can be better understood.

The team behind CrowdTangle, one of Facebook’s top data-analytics tools, was reorganized earlier this year. Brandon Silverman, CrowdTangle’s founder, said Wednesday he would leave the company by the end of the week. “I’m not sure what the future holds for CrowdTangle or data transparency here at Facebook, but I’m optimistic,” Mr. Silverman said in his farewell note.

Facebook has been tightening the reins on what information is shared internally over the past few weeks, the people said. A team within the company is examining all in-house research that could potentially damage Facebook’s image if made public, some of the people said.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the team is looking to understand Facebook’s internal research better and the context in which it was done.

There have been two congressional hearings since the Journal’s series published last month, including one on Tuesday by the Senate consumer protection subcommittee. During that hearing, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who gathered documents that served as the foundation for the Journal’s reporting and that were provided to federal regulators, pressed Facebook to share internal and external research more broadly. In products such as cars and cigarettes, she said, independent researchers can evaluate health effects, but “the public cannot do the same with Facebook.”

Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in Tuesday’s Facebook post: “We’re committed to doing more research ourselves and making more research publicly available.”

Facebook’s vice president for content policy, Monika Bickert, referred to the documents as stolen during a Tuesday interview on CNN after the latest Senate hearing.

Facebook executives have discussed the possibility of suing Ms. Haugen to allege she stole company documents, people familiar with the talks said. Some have raised concerns about whether such a move would cause further reputational damage, one of the people said.

Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, told senators last week that her company wouldn’t retaliate against the individual for providing Congress with internal company research, but didn’t address any further possible action.

Inside Facebook, many data scientists and internal researchers say the company should release more documents and research. Many other employees say they feel attacked by the media and lawmakers, especially given that other tech companies don’t do this type of research in the first place.

Facebook policy executives have also been trying to gauge and influence lawmakers’ perspective of the company, both ahead of and after the recent hearings, congressional aides said. Facebook executives recently reached out to congressional aides to further detail the company’s decision to pause Instagram Kids, and reiterated that the product was conceived to address the issue of children getting phones at younger ages, according to a document described to the Journal.

The policy executives also cited other Facebook internal research done to improve its products, such as antibullying work that restricted certain words and instituted word limits, according to the document.

“Of course, lawmakers have lots of questions and our team wants to make sure they have accurate information about what we’re doing,” Facebook’s Mr. Stone said.

Some senators said they would be writing letters to Facebook, demanding more information. Congressional aides said they expected lawmakers to call other executives for additional hearings on the matter and that they may subpoena documents from the company.

The Facebook Files

Write to Emily Glazer at emily.glazer@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

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