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Meta-axes internal team responsible for the question ‘are we the bad guys?’

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As reported by the Wall Street Journal (opens in new tab), Meta has dissolved its internal “Responsible Innovation” team. The group of more than 20 members included employees from various specializations and backgrounds, including ethicists, and was charged with investigating and responding to ethical concerns related to Meta’s products. One example cited by the WSJ was how it advised Facebook Dating not to include a race filter as part of its services.

The Responsible Innovation team appears to have been founded in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election and has been active for several years. In 2021, Facebook VP Margaret Gould Stewart formulated something of a mission statement for the team titled “Width and Depth: Why I’m Upbeat About Facebook’s Responsible Innovation Efforts. (opens in new tab)

“These tools have generated a lot of good in the world,” Stewart wrote of Meta’s products, “but their strength requires a deep sense of responsibility and a commitment to make the most ethical decisions every day.”

Meta notes that most of the team’s employees will continue to do similar work in other departments. A Meta spokesperson told the WSJ that future work of this nature would be more “problem-specific.”

Even with that taken into account, Meta strikes me as a company that could use more ethicists at every level. Meta’s biggest products, Facebook and Instagram, have had far-reaching social impacts beyond their original purpose.

Facebook’s role in distorting individuals’ perceptions of reality through the content that algorithmically determines it they want to see is well documented, with a 2021 Washington Post (opens in new tab) story noting that “news publishers known for spreading misinformation received six times as many likes, shares and interactions on the platform as reliable news sources” during the 2020 US presidential election.

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