Zuckerberg’s talk was about the company’s commitment to “voice and free expression.” He elaborated on Facebook’s recent decision not to vet political ads for lies, before outlining the difference between Facebook’s policies and those of one of its main rivals, the Chinese company TikTok, which has been criticized repeatedly for censorship.
All the while, comments streamed down the side of the video, often so many at once it was hard to read them. They were nearly universally positive. Many were gushing. Almost all of them seemed to be about Mark Zuckerberg as a person—a great person!—and virtually none were even remotely related to the content of the speech. Not only had these people tuned in by the tens of thousands on a Thursday to watch a software company’s CEO discuss corporate policy, but they were blessing him with prayer-hand emoji and hearts, thanking him for his genius and his generous spirit, and occasionally, it seemed, trying to flirt with him.
“You’re looking very handsome and dashing …” one read, with a kissy-face emoji. “Looking very sweet and cute … Lots of love for you.” It ended with a fire emoji and a peace sign. “This man left an indelible footprint in the sands of time. Thanks a lot for this wonderful platform called FACEBOOK,” went another.
The replies to Collins’s tweet were full of suspicion. These had to be spam, or bots gravitating toward any video with sufficient engagement, or an astroturfing campaign organized by Facebook’s PR team. There could not possibly be this many people who love Mark Zuckerberg this much. Fast Company quickly published a piece that said the comments “sure look censored”; minutes later, Facebook was on the record with several outlets denying any interference. When a post or video has an extraordinarily high volume of comments, Facebook automatically sifts through them using “ranking signals” to filter out inauthentic or “low-quality” posts, a spokesperson told The Washington Post, but nothing was different for this particular stream.
Once the stream ended, it was easy to go back and find negative comments (“LIZARD,” “Liar,” “Oppressor of free will, free speech, and the king of manipulation of the weak-minded!”), as well as a fair amount of total gibberish, but it was also fairly obvious that the thousands-upon-thousands of super-positive comments were not from bots. They were too specific and strange not to be real.