Illustration: Kurt Woerpel for Bloomberg Businessweek

Facebook’s Future Is Private Groups, for Better and Worse

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- A few months ago, Julie Tu was losing interest in Facebook. She’d deleted the app from her phone and only occasionally visited the website. Like many of her peers, the 25-year-old painter and photographer in Longmont, Colo., spent most of her social media time on Instagram. Then she heard about a Facebook group called Subtle Asian Traits, which in a matter of months had drawn more than a million people of Asian descent to post memes poking lighthearted fun at their shared cultural heritage. Tu quickly became obsessed, and Facebook suggested she join other meme groups with names such as Subtle Asian Creativity and Subtle Asian Mental Health Support Group. “Now I’m on it for hours at a time,” she says.

Fast-growing meme and community groups have been a bright spot for Facebook Inc. over the past several months amid a series of privacy scandals and the company’s own projections that people are spending less time on its namesake site. Subtle Asian Traits, while exceptionally popular, has origins typical of the genre: A group of Asian-Australian high school students, mostly first-generation immigrants, started it to distract themselves from exams. Screenshots of text exchanges with strict parents, photos of favorite childhood foods, and images that illustrate the difficulty of learning an Asian language usually attract thousands of likes and comments. “We’ve grown up in this environment where we’re the minority, and we don’t really have a community,” says group co-creator Anny Xie. “In this group, with a million other Asians, you’re all having the same experience as a community.”

Facebook says about 1.4 billion people are using at least one of the tens of millions of groups on Facebook each month, up from about 1 billion monthly users in 2017, and that’s helped boost the site’s overall use. More than 1.5 billion people used Facebook on an average day in December, a 9 percent increase from a year earlier. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has made groups “an organizing principle for more of the activity in the app,” as he said on Facebook’s earnings call last month.

Groups, which can be public or private, have helped organize rallies, keep long-distance friends in touch, and unite people with similar passions for, say, charity, biking, or youth choir. Closed groups such as Subtle Asian Traits, which require approval to join, feel relatively intimate even when membership is in the seven figures. That’s even more true of secret groups, which can’t be found through Facebook’s search tool. Groups are hardly immune from the hate speech, Russian propaganda, and other dross that’s rampant on Facebook’s central news feed, but groups that are more actively policed or curated can seem like a welcome alternative to the broader cacophony. Facebook has tweaked the algorithm so that posts from groups, friends, and family rank higher in the news feed.

“It’s that sticky part of the service that’s hard to get away from when you have so many activities tied to it,” says Richard Greenfield, an analyst at brokerage BTIG.

The growth of groups makes it all the more urgent for Facebook to reckon with the spammers, manipulators, and hackers that exploit them to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories, among other things. For every Subtle Asian Traits, where the users who run the group spend hours a day approving posts and new members, there are countless groups dominated by trolls, bullies, and worse. In special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for allegedly interfering in the 2016 election, several Facebook groups were cited as tools to support President Trump’s campaign or oppose Hillary Clinton’s. More recently, Facebook groups have been criticized for amplifying anger and spreading misinformation during violent protests in France.

Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, says his work shows that Facebook groups represent the greatest short-term threat to election news and information integrity. “As of 2018, groups now play a major role in manipulation, helping to push ideas at the right place and at the right time across the Facebook platform,” says Albright, who adds that the ability to conceal such coordination makes it much more effective. Even benign groups can be easily manipulated by people with darker agendas, says Renee DiResta, the research director at New Knowledge, an information security company. “They can commandeer the group for their own ends,” she says.

If history is any judge, Facebook will need some persuading to take the steps needed to adequately safeguard groups. The company says it has introduced artificial intelligence tools to detect and remove group posts and comments that violate its terms of service, and that it’s working to reduce the influence of groups dedicated to misinformation. But for now, groups seem to be achieving what appeared impossible just a year ago: keeping people aged 25 and under using Facebook, not just Instagram. Megan Kan, a freshman at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says meme groups are her main reason to use the venerable service. “My mom is not in Subtle Asian Traits,” she says. “So I can say and tag whatever I want.”

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