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THE YCEO: Facebook Seems To Have A New Favorite Word: Transparency

In the midst of Facebook’s biggest public relations crisis ever, the social media behemoth wants everyone to know that it’s going to start taking transparency very, very seriously.

That new commitment, the company explained, starts with changing its notoriously opaque policies and products to better reflect this newfound commitment. In a blog post, Facebook announced an update to its pages that will allow users to see all the ads that page is currently running, along with a detailed history of any name changes that have been made to the page.

Previously, there were very few ways page owners could be held accountable for the ads they ran. A page could “dark post” hyper-targeted ads into users’ News Feed or Instagram feed and there would be no clear way to tie the ad back to the organization that paid for it.

The changes announced today address this, and aim to discourage the kind of shady behavior that allowed Facebook pages to manipulate the public with inflammatory posts ahead of the 2016 elections.

During a press event announcing the changes at its Menlo Park office, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg went a step further.

“With today’s announcements and the steps we’ve already taken, we are providing much more transparency than any other advertising platform, either online or offline,” she said

“Transparency” has become something of a catchphrase for the company over the last several months as it scrambles to restore trust following a spate of high profile scandals. With each update, Facebook has sworn that transparency is top of mind.

As a messaging strategy, it’s a smart move. Facebook desperately needs to win back user confidence — it’s the reason why it’s been running apology ads nonstop — and hyping its commitment to transparency aids that goal.

It also becomes a convenient excuse when critics push back on the company’s decisions, such as its move to lump promoted news stories about politics into the same archive as actual political advertisements. Some newsrooms have bristled at the move, calling it a heavy-handed response that conflates political journalism with politics itself.

Though Facebook said it would tweak the policy slightly — news posts will appear in a separate space in the archive that holds political ads — it’s mostly brushed off the criticism, saying it’s really just trying to be — you guessed it — transparent.

“It’s worth noting that our commitment to transparency around electoral and issue ads applies to all organizations; not just news and advocacy, but to commercial enterprises and traditional businesses that engage in issue advertising as well,” she wrote.

Speaking Thursday, Sandberg echoed the sentiment saying “this was a really hard decision,” but that, ultimately, the company “decided our goal is transparency.”

To be clear, transparency is a good thing. A company as large and influential as Facebook should be as transparent as possible. But it’s difficult to ignore that it’s also an extraordinarily convenient excuse, too.

Instead of, say, addressing the fact that perhaps an actual media company with rigorous editorial standards would be better-equipped to make complex distinctions between journalism and political speech, Facebook can instead enact an overly broad policy with no concern for complexity or nuance at all.

Then, when people complain, they can just say they are acting in the interest of transparency. How can anyone take issue with transparency?

In any case, it’s clear that “transparency” has become Facebook’s new talking point, whether it’s hyping a new change or defending against critics. Now it just has to hope that’s enough to win back users’ trust.


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