Facebook Won’t Win the Blame Game on COVID Misinformation

Facebook Won't Win the Blame Game on COVID Misinformation
Photo illustration VIP+; Adobe Stock

For a study of contrasting executive styles in one company, look no further than the difference between how Instagram chief Adam Mosseri performed in front of Congress last week and how his fellow Meta Platforms exec Andrew “Boz” Bosworth acquitted himself in a recorded interview with Axios on Sunday.

While Mosseri did his best to be as diplomatic as possible, Bosworth, who next year will step up to become Meta CTO, came off as if he was chugging truth serum before being asked about the way Facebook was contending with how ubiquitous COVID misinformation is on the world’s biggest social platform.

“That’s their choice_they are allowed to do that,” the Facebook longtimer said of users spreading falsehoods about the virus. “You have an issue with those people. You don’t have an issue with Facebook. You can’t put that on me.”

Bosworth’s statement was one of several fairly defensive comments that displayed a clear shift away from Facebook suggesting it bore the ultimate responsibility for the tools it provides users. While the company has deflected responsibility in the past in other matters, such as its role in the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill, taking a similar tack on COVID, reminiscent of the oft-ridiculed “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” logic of the NRA, is curious to say the least.

Such tough talk is certainly a contrast from the more finessed approach of Meta global affairs VP Nick Clegg or company founder Mark Zuckerberg, who have never been this blunt before about putting the onus of responsibility back on its users.

The lack of message discipline coming out of Facebook with regard to the biggest controversy the company has been up against suggests there are a few potential problems here, and none of them reflects well on those involved.

It’s possible that what Bosworth said underscores a significant shift in Facebook’s official posture on misinformation, from a conciliatory stance to a more defiant tone that basically means, “We at Facebook no longer see ourselves as the problem; it’s the bad apples among our user base who are spoiling the bunch.”

Given Facebook’s defenses against misinformation to date haven’t much helped the company, you couldn’t blame it for using Bosworth here to float a trial balloon to suss out more confrontational positioning.

But I’m more inclined to believe another possibility, really the opposite of the “bad apples” defense: Facebook has so many other fish to fry in the grand scheme of its business that it can’t actually be bothered to muster any kind of consistency with regard to its messaging on misinformation.

What could be misinterpreted as a deviation from the conciliatory stance is really just a reflection of the fact that Facebook doesn’t even care enough to stay on point. Have people gotten worked up that the company isn’t being accountable for its own product? “Whatever,” the subtext of Bosworth’s comments suggests.

What makes this scenario particularly hard to swallow is it came from Bosworth, who is clearly getting positioned as more of a public face for the company in advance of his promotion in 2022. That he would go this far out on a limb and essentially brand himself with comments this controversial means Bosworth presents an opportunity for Facebook to be seen in a new, and perhaps not particularly flattering, light.