A Former Facebook Executive Pushes to Open Social Media’s ‘Black Boxes’

Brandon Silverman’s last day at Facebook was Oct. 8, and like many others who have sold their companies to a Silicon Valley giant, had their shares vest and departed, he planned to take a year off to spend time with his children and figure out what to do next.

He had been at the social media giant since it acquired his start-up, CrowdTangle, in 2016. And he had watched that project, which tracks the content that draws attention on Facebook, emerge as perhaps the single most important window into what was actually happening on the megaplatform. But his project had increasingly become an irritant to his bosses, as it revealed the extent to which Facebook users engaged with hyperpartisan right-wing politics and misleading health information.

While Mr. Silverman no longer works at Facebook, he hasn’t quite left the company behind. Instead, he has spent the weeks since his exit working with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators on legislation that would, among other things, force the giant social media platforms to provide the sort of transparency that got him marginalized at Facebook.

“What’s happening right now, though, is that a few private companies are disseminating a massive amount of the world’s news and it’s largely happening inside black boxes,” Mr. Silverman told me last week, in his first interview since leaving the company. “I think figuring out ways to both help and, in some cases, force, large platforms to be more transparent with news and civic content as it’s in the process of being disseminated can ultimately help make social platforms better homes for public discourse — and in a lot of ways, help them live up to a lot of their original promise.”

Much of what Americans know about what happens inside companies like Google and Facebook these days comes from employees who tire of the corporate spin and leak internal documents. Congress is responding to documents leaked first to The Wall Street Journal by a former Facebook product manager, Frances Haugen. The revelations in those documents confirmed and deepened the perception of an out-of-control information wasteland hinted at by CrowdTangle’s data.

Mr. Silverman isn’t a leaker or a whistle-blower, and he declined to discuss details of his time at Facebook. But his defection from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill is significant. He arrived with detailed knowledge of perhaps the most effective transparency tool in the history of social media, and he has helped write it into a piece of legislation that is notable for its technical savvy.

Nathaniel Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford University, who first suggested a version of the transparency legislation in October, said Mr. Silverman had been “instrumental” in shaping the section of the legislation that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to force platforms to disclose, in real time, what information is spreading on them. The provision is part of a bill more broadly aimed at letting academic researchers conduct independent studies into the inner workings of the platforms and their social effects. As written, the legislation would apply to Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Snap — and would probably, a Senate aide said, also extend to Amazon.

Washington is awash in proposals for reforming social media, but in a narrowly divided Congress, it’s little surprise that none have passed. Many Democrats believe that social media’s core problem is that dangerous far-right speech is being amplified. Many Republicans believe that the core problem is that the platforms are suppressing conservative political views. The new Senate legislation, which was introduced by two Democrats, Chris Coons and Amy Klobuchar, and a Republican, Rob Portman, may have a path toward passage because it doesn’t require taking a side in that argument.

“It’s not taking a position on some of the big divisive issues on social media and tech and regulation,” Senator Coons said in an interview, but simply providing “more critically needed data and research.”

Senator Portman said in an emailed statement that “every new disclosure of problematic activities by social media companies reignites calls for congressional action.” Before answering those calls, he said, “Congress should take a step back to ensure that we are not legislating in the dark.”

For Mr. Silverman, the legislation is a return to politics. He came to the tech industry through an unusual path, which began in 2005 at the Center for Progressive Leadership, a nonprofit organization aimed at training a new generation of political leaders. He became interested in building online communities as a way to keep the program’s alumni connected. In 2011, he helped found a company then called OpenPage Labs, aimed at building social networks for progressive nonprofits using Facebook’s “open graph,” a short-lived program that allowed software developers to integrate their applications with Facebook.

The most successful element of that company was its ability to measure what was happening on Facebook pages and groups, and the company began licensing its analytical tools to publishers, among others. A significant customer was the fast-growing progressive media start-up Upworthy in 2013, followed by a wave of other media companies. I first met Mr. Silverman in that period, and it was clear that his company’s insight into which stories were spreading fastest on Facebook offered a distinct advantage to writers and editors looking for traffic.

In 2017, Facebook made the service free, and opened it up to thousands of new users. Eventually, human rights organizations and fact checkers seeking to understand their own societies and improve their media also started using it, as well as journalists who wanted to understand Facebook itself.

“That was when we began to realize how much of the outside world was eager and depended on seeing what was happening on the platform,” Mr. Silverman said.

But as the news about Facebook’s impact on society turned negative, CrowdTangle was increasingly seen internally as a threat. In July 2020, my colleague Kevin Roose started a Twitter account listing Facebook’s most engaged links every day, much of it inflammatory right-wing commentary. The account was an irritant to Facebook’s executives, “embarrassed by the disparity between what they thought Facebook was — a clean, well-lit public square where civility and tolerance reign — and the image they saw reflected in the Twitter lists,” as Mr. Roose put it after he obtained internal emails debating the future of CrowdTangle last July.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, complained in the emails that “our own tools are helping journos to consolidate the wrong narrative.”

Brian Boland, a Facebook vice president who was Mr. Silverman’s boss before resigning in 2020, told Mr. Roose that the CrowdTangle data he used “told a story they didn’t like and frankly didn’t want to admit was true.” The company subsequently disbanded Mr. Silverman’s team, leaving CrowdTangle’s future in doubt.

Mr. Silverman, who wouldn’t say how much he sold his company for but no doubt made a small fortune, said he had mixed feelings about his experience at Facebook.

“They gave us a lot of freedom and resources and support to do this work for four years when a lot of platforms were doing nothing,” he said. And it is notable that one reason you’ve read so much about Facebook’s capacity for spreading terrible health information is simply that it’s easier to see into than YouTube or TikTok.

But he said that the internal politics had turned against CrowdTangle.

“There was a vision about transparency that I believed in and my team had come to believe in that it was clear we wouldn’t be able to pursue inside Facebook as much as we had in the past,” he said.

About three weeks after Mr. Silverman left Facebook, Mr. Persily contacted him to say that Senator Coons’s office was interested in his help with the tech legislation.

The bill was driven in part by the frustration of researchers at how hard it is to even define the problems posed by social platforms.

Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering who studies misinformation on Facebook, said she had gone into the project thinking that she would simply confirm liberal concerns that right-wing content gets more engagement and promotion. But she said that she also found a “very high false positive rate for content being flagged, so conservatives probably are experiencing content being taken down incorrectly, while it’s also true that right-wing misinformation goes viral on Facebook.” Her project ended when Facebook disabled her account. The new legislation, she said, would be a “game changer.”

Mr. Silverman said that he had been frustrated to see proposals for fixing social media that were “based on anecdotal evidence or folklore or urban myths about what’s happening on the platforms.” He said a better window into the platforms might also help observers untangle cause from effect across a global platform, and understand where Facebook is causing common problems and where it’s amplifying parochial ones. Mr. Roose’s list of viral right-wing stories, for instance, is a distinctly American phenomenon. Similar lists in other countries typically turn up cute animals or less partisan news, Mr. Silverman said.

The legislation is being circulated in draft form for feedback from, among others, the tech companies themselves. A spokesman for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, Tucker Bounds, pointed to CrowdTangle’s technical limits and said that “a more rounded approach to transparency requires new tools.” (The company’s earlier attempts to displace CrowdTangle data with its own reporting foundered when the data proved unflattering, was suppressed and then leaked to my colleagues Davey Alba and Ryan Mac.) Still, CrowdTangle has made Facebook more transparent to outsiders than YouTube, TikTok or Snap. Mr. Bounds also said that Facebook was “the only major consumer platform to provide this level of transparency,” adding, “We plan to keep providing industry-leading transparency into how our products work and urge our competitors to do the same.”

The Senate aide said the tech companies had only been heatedly opposed to one element: a tough enforcement mechanism that would suspend legal protections under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act for companies that don’t comply with demands that they make their inner workings available to researchers and the public. The aide said the legislation would be formally introduced early this year.

And if the legislation passes, Facebook may live to regret the energy it spent working to shut Mr. Silverman’s window into the platform. But I suspect many of us will be grateful to rest the high-stakes debate about social media on shared facts, available in real time.

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