On Monday evening, Gizmodo published a leaked email between Facebook employees in March suggesting the company was tracking users of the social network based on their actions in real life and may be tracking “secretly” how many times users keep their comments and posts up. In an email sent to the personal account of one of Facebook’s engineer Jeff Dean, who developed the algorithms that change the posts one would receive in one’s news feed, a Facebook product manager confirmed the algorithm changes to Gizmodo.
A nine-month-old Reddit thread published by the Vice, of a report by the Hollywood Reporter that Facebook was testing a news feed algorithm and revealed that the company could predict a person’s “obsession with beauty”, highlighted another section of the email Gizmodo translated from several different countries, showing the rate of removal of posts in each location.
Facebook logo. Photograph: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
In early 2017, Facebook introduced a change in algorithm that allowed more content to filter into one’s feed, and in the leaked email, Facebook boasted that by the end of February the algorithm had allowed the “removal of over 45% of unwanted posts from people’s feeds”, Gizmodo reported. In all, Facebook has remove more than one billion old posts from its users. In a similar post shared by Vice, earlier this year an engineer described how the algorithm was meant to initially remove as many as 98% of old posts and then as much as 80% during the process, only making about two posts a day, from one to another, Gizmodo reported. In February, according to Vice, Facebook took 99% of posts out of a user’s feed.
The leaked email suggested that the algorithm can change the number of messages one receives based on their email address. Facebook said in an email to Gizmodo that it is currently working on two separate changes to the algorithm in January and February 2019 that will allow each user to choose their own priorities for their feeds.
“We will be launching in a few weeks two updates which have been requested by people who recently moved to different countries, to allow them to pick their favorite feeds without having to worry about which apps receive their message,” the email said.
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The leaked email also shows that the algorithm has seemingly impacted ads rather than posts in the news feed. In April, the Washington Post reported that Facebook was considering penalizing ads that contain advertising that leans to the left.
Facebook also insisted in its email that the emails did not demonstrate the extent of how Facebook had implemented tracking of users, or identify specific users.
“These are not the Facebook we know and love,” said Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of product, in an email to Gizmodo. “They were an imperfect product which we are working hard to improve, and both our internal and external experts agree that they do not represent how Facebook behaves today.”
Asked to comment on whether they believed the emails showed as much tracking as the company asserts they didn’t, a spokesperson for Facebook referred to Mosseri’s emailed response and emphasised the importance of how Facebook handled the situation.
“We take compliance very seriously,” said the spokesperson. “In fact, we recently reported this to both of our Privacy Councils for independent review. Our commitment to compliance is shared with all our employees. We continuously work to improve internal practices.”
The spokesperson said the company has been removing old posts because of changes to the algorithm, and that in future, updates to the algorithm will focus on the number of likes and comments one receives in response to a post.