Facebook Messenger CEO Vows More Scrutiny of Platform's Use

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- Facebook Inc. should be more proactive in detecting malicious actors on its platform, the head of its Messenger business said Wednesday.

Facebook and other internet companies are embroiled in controversy over the use of their services by what they have said were Russian actors trying to manipulate U.S. public opinion around the presidential election. Facebook only last month identified Russian-backed accounts that bought advertisements on divisive issues, and the company said it is hiring more moderators and taking other steps to increase transparency.

"In the future we need to increase our level of scrutiny and challenge ourselves to understand the ways people might use a platform in the ways it wasn't designed for," David Marcus said at The Wall Street Journal's WSJD.Live technology conference.

Some of the 470 accounts Facebook identified as Russian-backed lured followers in part by communicating using the Messenger app. Mr. Marcus said his understanding is that "a very small number" of the total operated in this way, noting that only individual users, not Facebook pages, can directly reach other users on Messenger.

Facebook removed the 470 Russia-backed accounts last month for violating its policy prohibiting accounts from misrepresenting their origin.

Mr. Marcus's team now is trying to turn the popularity of Messenger into revenue. That effort has some urgency: Facebook this year said it had reached the upper limit of the number of ads it wants to stuff into the news feed of its primary app. Now Facebook needs other ways of making money to avoid a broader slowdown in revenue growth.

Already, Messenger has been bringing in some revenue. In July, Facebook started showing advertisements inside Messenger; advertisers can use such ads to drive traffic to their websites or open messaging threads between users and companies.

To ensure the ads don't turn off Messenger users, Mr. Marcus said his team monitors engagement to see if users return less frequently.

"So far so good," Mr. Marcus said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we can make this work."

Facebook's other messaging app, WhatsApp, said in September that it will eventually charge companies to use some future features. The tools help businesses communicate with customers on the app.

Messenger is more popular in affluent markets like the U.S. and Europe, while WhatsApp is more popular in developing countries.

The messaging apps each have 1.3 billion monthly users, and the teams behind them could learn from each other. What Mr. Marcus and his team are doing with monetization on Messenger could be a road map for how Whatsapp could monetize.

"We share everything, we're a very open company," Mr. Marcus said.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 18, 2017 14:10 ET (18:10 GMT)