Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 3: Facebook’s Perspective

What you can learn from this section is the way Facebook is dealing with the phenomenon of cyberbullying as viewed by Joe Sullivan, the Company’s CSO.

David Kirkpatrick: Ok, so, Joe, what is Facebook’s general perspective on this? I mean, you, I know, think about it a lot. So how should we view Facebook in the context of this problem and what should we expect from Facebook?

Joe Sullivan: I think the way we view it is a lot like this panel: we’re probably talking twice as much to the academics as we are to law enforcement right now when it comes to dealing with this issue. And then the only thing missing from this stage would be a teacher and a parent in terms of the dialogue that we’re trying to have.

David Kirkpatrick: I think we have a lot of parents here.

Facebook's Bullying Prevention Page

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Page

Joe Sullivan: Come on up. So, a lot has changed since your panel in 2007 in terms of sites like Facebook trying to deal with the challenges in this area. I think in 2007 Internet sites viewed their obligations as: have a report button on the site, and then have a warehouse full of employees reviewing each of those reports. And we all start there, and Facebook started there.

But what you quickly realize when you start reviewing reports from 13- and 14-year-olds about being bullied is that it’s really hard for a third party to look at that situation and make a judgment call. Point #1: it’s really hard to make that judgment call; and then point #2: it’s very hard for that 13-year-old to press a button that says: “Report violation of terms”.

And so, what we’ve needed to do is get a lot more sophisticated over time. And so we started out testing a lot of different things, and I think what we’re doing now is very different from what we were doing even 2 or 3 years ago.

We came up with this concept of social reporting, with the idea there being that, if you feel that you’re being targeted, it might be better for you to reach out to a member of your community, a trusted member of the community who could help you with the situation, and not feel so alone.

The first thing we’ve learned is that we have a long way to go.

I was at the anti-bullying conference, and one of the people speaking said: “The most important thing for preventing bullying is to make sure that the potential target knows before they’re bullied that they have someone they can turn to for help”. So, the social reporting is built on the idea that if you have someone that you can turn to, let’s make it really easy.

And so, if you see a photo of yourself on Facebook that you think is inappropriate and attacking you, you can select that report option, but now there are multiple avenues that you can go. First we added this idea of reporting it to a third party who can help you. And then more recently we added: “Why not reach out to the person who posted it?” And that’s what we’ve been studying over the last couple of years.

One of our senior engineers got really interested in this idea of compassion research and started working with some academics at a couple of institutions of higher education. And we’ve learned so much just in a couple of years. I think the first thing we’ve learned is that we have a long way to go. But we’ve also learned that how you characterize what’s going on matters tremendously.

So, a 13-year-old would be happy to press a button that says: “Send this message to the other 13-year-old” saying: “Please remove that photo; it makes me embarrassed.” But they don’t want to press a button that says: “I think you’re violating Facebook’s Terms of Service”.

David Kirkpatrick: We’re going to come back to this in a little while.

Joe Sullivan: So I think there is a lot we can learn about how we communicate about this concept of bullying, and there is a lot we can do to empower the person who’s targeted to have a voice, and that’s the direction we want to go as a platform.

David Kirkpatrick: On that work, which we’re going to talk about more that you’re referring to, you’re working with a lot of very serious academics at Yale and elsewhere. Could you talk just a little bit about how much you’re interacting with outside professionals on this?

Joe Sullivan: Sure. I mentioned one of our senior engineering directors reached out to some academics who were doing compassion research, and essentially asked them to help us redesign the flows on our site. So we had a public workshop a few weeks ago, where they unveiled the second round of research, so, specifically looking at 13- and 14-year-olds in the United States and presenting different reporting flows to these teenagers.

Because of the volume of 300 million photographs being uploaded to Facebook on a typical day, even if a tiny percentage of those result in someone feeling awkward and embarrassed or targeted and they report, that’s a lot of report flows that we can surface and study the results of how changing one word can impact.

And then what else can we put into those flows to help address the situation? You used the word ‘empathy’, which is, I think, a really important word here. What we found is that most of the time the person who put up their photo didn’t have empathy for the person who felt targeted. And so the question is: “Can we build empathy in the context of them working through it?” So in some of the flows we’ll actually surface things that the two of you have in common.

Read previous: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 2: Lessons Learned from the Megan Meier Case

Read next: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 4: The Role of Empathy

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