Facebook staff have revealed the ‘painful’ impact of a nightmare year for the firm in which users had their data hacked, the company’s value plunged and the platform was widely accused of enabling fake news, online abuse and hate speech.
One Facebook insider told a BBC Two documentary that their faith that they were ‘doing something positive for the world’ was ‘a little bit crushed’ amid a series of scandals at the firm.
Another executive admitted on tonight’s Horizon programme, Inside The Social Network: Facebook’s Difficult Year, that she had not realised how hard it would be to tackle online abuse – a problem which the company’s tech wizards are now entrusting to artificial intelligence.
However, Facebook still plan to expand and make the network even more indispensable: pairing patients with blood donors, helping police to find missing children and using drones to send the internet to remote places.
The BBC documentary offers a rare glimpse inside the huge rows of cables and servers at one of Facebook’s 15 data centres, where personal details of billions of users are processed and stored.
At one Texas facility, the length from one end of the data storage unit to another is equivalent to that of four American football fields – nearly 500 yards.
While staff at the facility insist they ‘take very seriously’ the responsibility of storing people’s memories and personal matters, Facebook has been hit by a series of data hacks which have exposed that data to malevolent actors.
That included Cambridge Analytica, a British-based firm with links to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The number affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal was initially estimated at around 50million but later revised up to as high as 87 million.
As the firm’s troubles mounted, it was fined by British authorities and saw its market value plunge by more than $100billion after it revealed a set of slower-than-expected user growth figures.
A contrite Mark Zuckerberg was summoned before U.S. senators and admitted he had not taken a ‘broad enough view of our responsibilities’.
Jonny Oser, head of internal communications, said the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal was ‘a very painful time for us internally’.
‘We all deeply care about what we’re doing here, we want to feel we’re doing something positive in the world. That faith was a little bit crushed, so that was really painful for a lot of people,’ he said.
BBC cameras have been allowed inside the nerve centre at the heart of Facebook in California
The Horizon programme on tonight follows staff trying to fix problems such as data leaks
In a glimpse of Facebook’s creative approach, staff are seen skateboarding through the office and amusing themselves with games rooms and table-tennis tables.
During a talk, Mr Oser says: ‘When we give feedback, we give feedback in a way that is constructive, but we don’t believe in being a***holes. That’s straight up, we just don’t tolerate d***s.’
Defending the social media giant’s risk-taking approach, he said firms such as Facebook ‘have to encourage people to take risks and be willing to fail because otherwise you’re just not going to achieve anything’.
Some staff still subscribe to the optimistic early-2000s vision of the Internet as a force for good in the world. One lab manager, Allan, said he was ‘driven’ by the ideal of ‘democratised access to information’.
Monika Bickert, the company’s head of global policy management, said: ‘When I came to Facebook I had been living overseas and dealing with international law for some time.
‘One thing I didn’t anticipate was how difficult it is to craft rules that work at our size with the volume of content we see every day, we get millions of reports every week, and so we need to craft rules that can be enforced fairly, and quickly and efficiently around the world.
‘We want Facebook to be a place that people want to come. At our scale, even if we get it right 99 per cent of the time, that still means we’re making thousands of mistakes every day. And every one of those mistakes is important to somebody.’
Huge rows of servers and shelves full of cables and equipment are seen at the company’s base
Staff are tasked with fighting hacking issues which have threatened to bring down the firm
Top engineers are trying to build unique systems to help Facebook become even bigger
Another insider said: ‘This is a new world. Everything we’re doing is brand new. And that comes with painful learning.’
Mark Zuckerberg’s firm has hired thousands of new engineers and reviewers but there is too much content for humans to police it all.
Facebook staff also say that users are ‘getting more creative’ despite their efforts to crack down on online abuse.
In one example that was shown in the documentary, staff looked at a post in which the abuse consisted entirely of emojis: a series of guns pointing at a symbol of two men holding hands, in what was clearly meant as a homophobic comment.
Similarly, Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) software can detect faces and clear images of child pornography, but cannot yet interpret the meaning and context behind posts.
For example, the famous picture of a young girl running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war could appear to an image of child sex abuse if taken out of context.
Facebook staff revealed they now want to bridge that gap, teaching AI how to interpret human emotions and body language.
‘As time goes by that technology is getting better and better and I think we’ll continue to use it more and more,’ Ms Bickert said.
Among its areas of research are training artificial intelligence to analyse human movement
Guy Rosen is a vice-president at Facebook, overseeing its work on safety and integrity
Mark Zuckerberg’s company has grown to be worth an estimated $500billion in just 15 years
The California-based company has been hit by a series of scandals over the past few years
A Facebook employee takes part in a hackathon to collaborate on computer programming
Facebook staff said they were still hoping to expand, with projects which would make the social network even more indispensable for its users.
In one project run by the company’s Social Good department, people looking to donate blood can be linked to people who need it.
The service is free, but cannot be accessed without a Facebook account, making users ever more dependent on the platform – and there are fears the blood donation system could be exploited by the black market.
Similarly, Facebook staff say they receive daily requests from police departments to put out alerts for missing children.
Facebook is also laying thousands of miles of fibre optic cable under the sea to improve connectivity between the data centres, and building new offices around the world to house its growing workforce.
Messages written on a whiteboard in part of Facebook’s nerve centre in Silicon Valley
Hema Budaraju is the health product manager at Facebook and features in the programme
The episode includes a talk given by Jonny Oser from Facebook’s global communication team
In a disastrous period for Facebook the firm has been hacked, fined and faced waves of criticism over its role in enabling the spread of misinformation online.
In September last year, Facebook acknowledged that another data breach affected 50million users.
Two weeks later, the company said that data belonging to 29million other users had been stolen.
Facebook has also been criticised for allowing users to spread terrorist propaganda and child abuse online.
Earlier this month the UK Competition and Markets Authority placed Facebook in its crosshairs with a major probe into the online advertising industry.
It will examine if Facebook and Google abuse their control of customers’ data to exclude competition and overcharge advertisers, who pass on costs to consumers.
Germany has also cracked down on Facebook’s data collection, banning it from combining data from WhatsApp, Instagram and websites that use its ‘like’ button.
Last year a major security flaw at Facebook exposed the personal details of 50million people
Mr Oser talked in the documentary about giving feedback ‘in a way that is constructive’
Fresh efforts to tackle scam ads across Facebook are being introduced in the UK today