On Tuesday, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a 900-word ode to Facebook Groups and how they foster online communities around the world.
The column didn’t appear in Brooks’ usual spot in the Times, where he’s had a popular opinion column since 2003. Instead, it was published on Facebook’s corporate website to promote a new study of groups that was funded by the social media giant.
“Facebook Groups has 1.8 billion users, and more than half of them are in five or more groups. Clearly people have come to really value the communities they are building online,” Brooks writes.
“It’s not social media that’s the problem, it’s the ideas and behavior of the people who use it,” he says.
Brooks did not respond to a request for comment, but Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the New York Times, told BuzzFeed News that editors for the Times were not aware of his work with Facebook, and that he was not compensated for his Facebook blog post or for a recent panel appearance for the social network. She noted that Brooks’ work was done in conjunction with the Aspen Institute’s Weave Project, a local community-building initiative that was founded by the Times writer.
“David’s editors were not aware of the blog post or panel discussion, and they are discussing with him now what additional steps he might take to make sure that his work with the Weave project doesn’t create any appearance of conflicts with his Times journalism,” Murphy said.
A spokesperson for the Aspen Institute, a Washington, DC–based think tank, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the Weave Project has received funding from Facebook. “A number of our programs, including Weave: The Social Fabric Project, work with Facebook in accordance with their missions and have accepted funding for specific projects,” the spokesperson said.
Brooks’ ties to Facebook raise questions of conflicts of interest at the world’s most influential newspaper, and highlight how the social network is working to rehabilitate its brand after years of criticism and scrutiny for its roles in spreading conspiracy theories, fomenting hate, and influencing elections. The revelation of the social network’s ties to Brooks and his Aspen Institute work comes after the company has shifted its focus to emphasize building communities in Facebook Groups, despite internal research suggesting that the product fosters polarization, radicalization, and misinformation.
Over the years, Facebook has bought newspaper and online advertisements in news publications and also run sponsored content, paid posts that are meant to look like native articles. It has also funded journalism initiatives and paid news organizations to feature their content, including for its Facebook News vertical, which was launched in Oct. 2019. (BuzzFeed News is paid by Facebook as part of that program, though the company has no say over editorial matters.)
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said Brooks was not compensated for his blog post or his appearance on a Facebook-organized video panel on Tuesday, but did confirm the company’s funding of the Aspen Institute, which oversees Weave. “Facebook has disclosed publicly for years its financial support for the Aspen Institute,” he said in an email.
Brooks’ post appeared on Facebook’s website on Tuesday, identifying him as a “Founder of the Aspen Institute’s Weave Project and New York Times Columnist.” Brooks, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has written Times columns about Facebook and social media in general, is one of the publication’s most recognizable writers and maintains commentary roles with NPR and PBS NewsHour.
“Online communities are in their early years, and it’s natural everything is a little haphazard,” Brooks writes for Facebook. “But I’m hopeful that we can build systems around these communities, to make them stronger, deeper and the engines of trust we need to build healthy societies.”
The post was timed with the release of a report on Facebook Groups titled “The Power of Virtual Communities” that was put together by New York University’s Governance Lab, which had received a $300,000 grant from the social network and worked with the company’s Community Partnerships team to find Groups admins to interview for the report. In addition to his writing, Brooks also appeared in a video panel organized by Facebook on Tuesday to discuss the research.
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said Brooks has a responsibility to disclose to his editors, and to readers, his connections with the Aspen Institute and Facebook.
“If the Times and David Brooks are asking people to trust his opinion journalism, then he should be clear about any entanglements that might affect the independence of that journalism,” she said.
Brooks’ post for Facebook painted a rosy picture of how people use Groups to create community connections. “They heavily rely on social media sites like Facebook to communicate with their communities, to deepen relationships, to do their work. I would say they are suspicious of Facebook the corporation, but I’m struck by how often they are glowing about what they can do on Facebook with their neighbors,” he writes.
His post did not mention recent reporting from BuzzFeed News and the Wall Street Journal that revealed Facebook has known for years that Groups are an engine of polarization and misinformation, and that the company failed to move quickly to enact changes that could protect users.
Beth Simone Noveck, director of the Governance Lab at NYU and a coauthor of the NYU report about Facebook Groups, said her team was aware of the ethical issues of working with Facebook and accepting money from the company to produce the report. NYU’s GovLab has received $700,000 in funding from Facebook since 2019, including $300,000 for the Groups report. For the research, Facebook connected academics with more than 50 administrators of large Groups, and shared data from a survey as well as selected internal data, with restrictions.
“The challenge is not lost on us and we’re very aware of the tension it creates,” she said, adding that the team included text in the final report to acknowledge the Jan. 6 insurrection was partly organized using social media, including Facebook Groups.
The report describes how the researchers worked with Facebook, and flags instances when Facebook shared internal data but would not offer full transparency about the origins of the information. Noveck said the goal of the report was to focus on “how these large-scale social groups are governed, and how they relate to the platform.” She acknowledged the negative aspects of Groups, but said it wasn’t their focus.
“That there is neo-Nazi activity, hate speech activity, and misinformation galore. Arguably you could say you don’t want that to obscure lots of great things going on. We need to tell both of these stories,” she said.
Noveck said the researchers were free to write what they wanted, but Facebook did read the report before publication, and provided graphic design and translation services.
“Facebook didn’t have veto power over what we wrote,” she said. “They saw [the report] before it was published.”
Culver said Facebook’s influence and big bank account will continue to be a source of concerns about conflicts of interest and editorial independence.
“When you have an organization as large and as moneyed as Facebook, these entanglements can add up really quickly,” she said.