Senator Portman said in a statement emailed that “any new disclosure of problematic activity by social media companies rekindles calls for action by Congress.” Before taking those calls, he said, “Congress should take a step back to make sure we don’t law in the dark.”
For Mr. Silverman, legislation is a return to politics. He came into the tech industry through an unusual route that began in 2005 at the Center for Progressive Leadership, a nonprofit dedicated to educating a new generation of political leaders. He was interested in building online communities to keep the program’s alumni connected. In 2011, he helped found a company called OpenPage Labs, which aimed to use Facebook’s “Open Graph” to build social networks for progressive nonprofits, a short-lived program that allowed software developers to integrate their applications with Facebook.
The most successful element of this company was its ability to measure what was happening on Facebook pages and groups, and the company began to license its analytics tools to publishers, among others. A major customer in 2013 was the fast-growing progressive media start-up Upworthy, followed by a wave of other media companies. I met Mr. Silverman for the first time during this time, and it was clear that his company’s understanding of which stories were the fastest to share on Facebook would provide a distinct advantage to traffic-hunting writers and editors.
In 2017, Facebook made the service free and opened it up to thousands of new users. Eventually, human rights organizations and fact checkers who wanted to understand their own societies and improve their media began, as well as journalists who wanted to understand Facebook themselves.
“That’s when we began to see how eager the outside world was and depended on seeing what was happening on the platform,” said Silverman.
But as the news about Facebook’s impact on society turned negative, CrowdTangle began to be seen as a threat internally. In July 2020 my colleague Kevin Roose started a Twitter account listing Facebook’s most engaged links every day, much of them inflammatory right-wing comments. The account was irritating to Facebook executives, “embarrassed by the discrepancy between what they believed was Facebook – a clean, well-lit public space where courtesy and tolerance prevail – and the image they were on Twitter lists saw “as Mr. Roose put it on he received internal emails discussing the future of CrowdTangle last july.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, complained in the emails that “our own tools are helping journos consolidate the false narrative.”