AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Instagram is rolling out new features to stop bullying on its platform, and we spoke about it yesterday with the company's head, Adam Mosseri. He used to work at Facebook, and he says it was there that he learned how social media could become a weapon. Mosseri developed the News Feed feature that amplified misinformation and propaganda during the 2016 election. He told me how that experience changed Facebook and his own approach to developing tools for social media.
ADAM MOSSERI: In the early days, we were so excited and optimistic about the value that comes from connecting people and, just quite frankly, under-focused and somewhat naive about the negative consequences of connecting people at scale. And so we were just invested way more on one side than the other. And the balance had to shift. And that's the major lesson for me and, I think, for most of us at Facebook, the company, over the last few years. And this is not just about making a decision about how many people work on one project versus another. It's an actual cultural shift, where you have to shift people's mindsets. When they have an idea that they're excited about, you need to get them to a place where they naturally not only think about all the good that can come from it but how that idea might be abused.
CORNISH: Right. I mean, just for context for people, you helped design - or designed the News Feed for Facebook, right? And that was the feature, essentially, that was manipulated by trolls and foreign actors in the 2016 election. But now you're in charge at Instagram, right? So what is your lesson as a person who designs these things about, like, how a tool can be manipulated?
MOSSERI: The most important lesson to me is that when you build a new feature or idea - we'll come up with something benign - let's say events on Facebook didn't exist, and we're like, oh, we're going build events. It'll be great. People will be able to schedule a time and get together and hang out in the real world. That's awesome. That's exciting. We should be enthusiastic about that, but we need to also think about how events might be misused. Could spammers use it to try and get people to - I don't know - buy fake iPads? Or could people use it to try to get people that they want to meet in real life in nefarious ways? You have to approach it with, like, an adversarial mindset. Imagine I am just a bad actor. There's all sorts of bad actors - ideologically motivated, financially motivated and otherwise. How would I abuse this thing? And then you need to try and design the experience to mitigate or address those abuses first class. And then on top of that, you try to identify the problems proactively and remove them. That is a...
CORNISH: How big a shift was that for you?
MOSSERI: It's a big shift. I mean, it is a - it makes everything you do much more complicated because, honestly, trying to build a feature that people use is difficult enough. But the people - the bad actors that you are combating at a - as a platform of our scale are really sophisticated. But that is just the way we need to run our company at this point.
CORNISH: It's interesting because I think there was a time when Silicon Valley would basically say to us, like, we're just a platform making things, and it's a tool. And, like, who knows if other bad things happen? That's not really our problem. I get the sense you guys realize it's your problem.
MOSSERI: We've realized that we have a lot of responsibility to understand how our platform is used and to address any abuses whenever possible. There is another tension, though, where we want to be careful about overstepping. There are certain things that we cannot and should not do, given our scale. We're not going to weigh on one ideological point of view or one religious point of view, for instance. But, yes, I think one of the big experiences that the industry as a whole has happened - has had over the last few years is to really become more aware of the negative consequences of what we do and to try and proactively embrace that responsibility and address those issues.
CORNISH: Adam Mosseri, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MOSSERI: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the time.
CORNISH: Adam Mosseri is head of Instagram. We should note Instagram's parent company, Facebook, is among NPR's financial sponsors.
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