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Facebook has said it wants to be more transparent. As usual with the social media giant, it’s two steps forward, one step back.
The latest development: Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday and shared more about his appreciation for Facebook and its employees. He referred to Facebook employees as “embeds,” a term commonly delegated to reporters who follow candidates on the campaign trail.
“Facebook employees would show up for work every day in our offices,” Parscale said.
“They were embedded in your campaign?” asked the interviewer Lesley Stahl.
“I mean, like, they were there multiple days a week, three, four days a week, two days week, five days a week,” Parscale said.
Prior to the episode’s airing, Facebook had gifted 60 Minutes with a four sentence statement that confirmed the company offered digital support to all campaigns: “…for candidates across the political spectrum, Facebook offers the same level of support in key moments to help campaigns understand how best to use the platform,” the statement reads.
The statement also said it is up to candidates to choose to accept these services. “While Facebook teams offer insight into how our products work, campaigns make their own strategic decisions about how to use the Facebook platform,” it reads.
But Facebook also quietly elaborated on this claim after the episode’s airing by updating a post Sunday in its Hard Questions blog, where the team occasionally publishes reports on difficult decisions it faces. In this update, Facebook made sure to deny Parscale’s claim that his team hand picked Facebook employees to work for them.
Did you have someone embedded within the Trump campaign?
We offered identical support to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, and had teams assigned to both. Everyone had access to the same tools, which are the same tools that every campaign is offered.
The campaigns did not get to “hand pick” the people who worked with them from Facebook. And no one from Facebook was assigned full-time to the Trump campaign, or full-time to the Clinton campaign. Both campaigns approached things differently and used different amounts of support.”
What’s interesting is that this update was seemingly snuck into the blog post. Facebook didn’t send it to Mashable, for example, and the new question and answer is added toward the bottom of the post rather than at the top where updates are typically placed.
A Facebook spokesperson told Mashable Tuesday the news around Russia ads is an evolving story and the team is looking to keep important information on those events in one place.
This isn’t the first time this blog post has been quietly updated. Facebook originally published a blog post on Russian ads on Sept. 6. That was the post first time they publicly revealed Russia-linked accounts spent $100,000 on political ads during the 2016 election.
Facebook published a separate post on Sept. 21 titled “More on Russian Ads.” Then, there’s another one published on Oct. 2 titled “Russian Ads Delivered to Congress.” On Oct. 6, Facebook decided to combine the text from both of those posts into one page. On Oct. 8, they added another question-and-answer in response to the 60 Minutes report.
It’s all a part of Facebook’s effort to be more transparent. Facebook launched the Hard Questions blog in June as a place to talk about “responsibility — and accountability — for our impact and influence,” wrote Elliot Schrage, vice president of public policy and communications.
In June, Facebook published two posts: one on counter terrorism and another one hate speech. In August, Facebook shared a post about their approach to death and memory. In September, Facebook wrote the news on Russian ads.
Facebook wants to talk about some things more. That is obvious. But the approach at transparency has been somewhat sketchy. For example, the team invited Mashable last month to meet with Tom Reynolds and Andrea Saul, two members of Facebook’s Civic and Community Standards communications team. The meeting was originally agreed on as on the record. On the night prior, Facebook requested the conversation be moved to on background and with parts off the record.
Facebook pulled a similar move just days earlier. Facebook typically holds an on-the record-event with reporters during Advertising Week in New York. The invite sent on August 24 was billed as such, but in the week prior to the event, Facebook moved the event to off the record.
What changed? News about Russia’s political ad spending on Facebook.
In person with Reynolds and Saul, Mashable asked if moving an interview or events from on the record to off the record exemplifies how they see and treat reporters, as in with little respect for the ethics of journalism and importance of openness. Reynolds asked to respond off the record.
Still, Facebook has been trying to show that it engages openly with the press. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, took to Twitter Saturday to share grievances on the media’s coverage of his company.
My suggestion for journalists is to try to talk to people who have actually had to solve these problems and live with the consequences.
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) October 7, 2017
Stamos wasn’t the only one either. Andrew Bosworth, an early Facebook employee who now oversees the hardware and artificial intelligence at the company, also tweeted shortly thereafter. “We could talk on FB but very few journos there! Gotta go where the journalists are I think,” Bosworth sent me via a Twitter direct message Saturday.
Facebook is in the midst of what is arguably its biggest scandal. The company will testify to the Senate and to the House on Nov. 1 about how its platform was used by Russian operatives during the 2016 election.
To its credit, the company has taken steps to be more open during this crisis. Zuckerberg used Facebook Live to elaborate on why his company changed face on handing the Russian ads over to Congress. There’s the Hard Questions blog, which prior to June, did not exist.
Facebook also enlisted a new partner in the media to be another platform for getting out their message. Facebook is launching an interview series with Mike Allen and Axios. It starts with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Thursday, which will be her first public interview since the crisis began.
But the reality remains that Facebook is still figuring out how to handle communications in the middle of its biggest crisis ever. Facebook has never been a particularly transparent company, and trying to become more transparent while also dealing with the Russia situation has led to plenty of dissonance in its messaging.
It’s encouraging to see the company taking steps forward. It’s problematic to see it quickly taking those steps back.