Some mistakes are easily explained; this was not one of those mistakes.
Facebook sent a survey to millions of users asking them for feedback around what is known as “child grooming,” where adults ask children for sexual pictures online.
“In thinking about an ideal world where you could set Facebooks’ policies, how would you handle the following: a private message in which an adult man asks a 14 year old girl for sexual pictures,” one questions asks, with users given the option to respond with: “This content should be allowed on Facebook, and I would not mind seeing it,” “This content should be allowed on Facebook, but I don’t want to see it,” “This content should not be allowed on Facebook, and no one should be able to see it,” and “I have no preference on this topic.” There’s only one right answer to that question, seeing as the act is a crime and already a violation of Facebook’s policies. And yet, Facebook still made the baffling decision to crowdsource responses from users.
Facebook’s Guy Rosen tweeted that including the question was an error:
We run surveys to understand how the community thinks about how we set policies. But this kind of activity is and will always be completely unacceptable on FB. We regularly work with authorities if identified. It shouldn’t have been part of this survey. That was a mistake.
— Guy Rosen (@guyro) March 4, 2018
Facebook tried to clarify its position:
We sometimes ask for feedback from people about our community standards and the types of content they would find most concerning on Facebook. We understand this survey refers to offensive content that is already prohibited on Facebook and that we have no intention of allowing so have stopped the survey. We have prohibited child grooming on Facebook since our earliest days, we have no intention of changing this, and we regularly work with the police to ensure that anyone found acting in such a way is brought to justice.
However, the damage had been done.
Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, condemned the survey. “This is a stupid and irresponsible survey,” she said. “Adult men asking 14-year-olds to send sexual images is not only against the law, it is completely wrong and an appalling abuse and exploitation of children. I cannot imagine that Facebook executives ever want it on their platform but they also should not send out surveys that suggest they might tolerate it or suggest to Facebook users that this might ever be acceptable.”
Others say the blunder undermines Facebook’s efforts to gather user feedback on how to improve its platform in response to the widespread crisis surrounding fake news and misinformation.
Facebook also said it would be asking users which news sources they trust in an effort to engineer a workaround for the existential problem of weaponized fake news.
Although that response has itself been pilloried — as likely to further exacerbate the filter bubble problem of social media users being algorithmically stewed inside a feed of only their own views.
So the fact Facebook is continuing to poll users on how it should respond to wider content moderation issues suggests it’s at least toying with the idea of doubling down on a populist approach to policy setting — whereby it utilizes crowdsourced majority opinions as a stand in for locally (and thereby contextually) sensitive editorial responsibility.
The move also indicates that Facebook lacks core ethics, relying on users to set ground rules.
The approach also reinforces the notion that Facebook is much more comfortable trying to engineer a moral compass (via crowdsourcing views and thus offloading responsibility for potentially controversial positions onto its users) than operating with any innate sense of ethics and/or civic mission of its own.
On the contrary, instead of facing up to wider societal responsibilities — as a the most massive media company the world has ever known — in this survey Facebook appears to be flirting with advocating shifts to existing legal frameworks that would deform ethical and moral norms.
Twitter users vehemently opposed Facebook’s survey:
This is so irresponsible of Facebook and gives a ridiculous message to people ! With online grooming being as high as it is, any survey should be about how they protect children who use their app! https://t.co/TsM5NLdLXS
— Sue Whitmore (@SueWhitmore3) March 6, 2018
Facebook has kept it short and sweet with its crisis response and seems to be hoping this incident is merely a blip in the news cycle.
All the same, the story is a cautionary tale for communicators: Something as simple as a customer survey can send a strong message about your organization’s values. Any consumer-facing message should receive the highest scrutiny—and PR pros should fight to be included in the process that creates them.