If you were to read The Verge's glossy 2,000-word exclusive about Facebook's first test flight of an internet-beaming drone, you'd think the June 28 flight was an unmitigated success. Published with photos provided by Facebook on the same day the company announced the test flight to the world, the story featured quotes from Mark Zuckerberg on the importance of the project and scenes of elated Facebook employees wiping away tears of joy as "Aquila" took to the sky.
Image: Adam Barry / Getty
What the piece didn't report was the fact that the landing caused a "structural failure" apparently so significant that the National Transportation Safety Board has deemed it an "accident" and has launched an investigation.
After Bloomberg first reported the probe yesterday, Verge writer Casey Newton, who wrote the exclusive back in July, published a followup:
On July 21st, I reported that Facebook had successfully completed the first test flight of Aquila, the drone with which it hopes to someday provide internet to much of the world. My account, which was based on interviews with Mark Zuckerberg and members of the team that was present on the ground for the June 28th flight, presented the flight as an unqualified success.
Newton reports, as our story did yesterday, that Facebook had in fact noted a structural failure "in passing in the eighth paragraph of Facebook's engineering blog on the day our story was posted".
He later notes:
For my part, I failed to note the significance of the line in its blog post afterward. As a result, my Aquila story was incomplete, and painted too rosy a picture of the company's adventures in aerospace. I now regret not asking about the details of the drone's landing — though when Facebook told me it "successfully" completed a test flight, that seemed to preclude the possibility of Aquila becoming substantially damaged in flight. The next time Facebook crows about a success, that's worth keeping in mind.
The Verge has since amended its original story:
Update, 11/21: Aquila experienced a structural failure during the flight, which led to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation. Facebook did not disclose the failure during our reporting of this story.
Indeed, it appears that most of the tech press — including Gizmodo — failed to even pick up on Facebook's "structural failure" comment in the blog post. Wired points to it in the last paragraph of its otherwise glowing recount of the flight, published with photos provided by Facebook, while saying the company still needs a good way to land the drone. CNN made no mention of it in its story, which was published with video provided by Facebook.
Neither Wired, CNN, nor The Verge were present for the test flight and relied solely on the information provided by Facebook three weeks later. Here's another fact: Facebook frequently peddles information to the press that is later proved to be, at best, outright misleading, and at worst, untrue. Facebook deemed this flight a success. Is it successful if you can't land a drone that took more than $US20 million ($27 million) to develop without causing "significant" damage? Facebook apparently seems to think so and, with its tight hold on what information it gives in advance to friendly publications, that "success" is reported as such.
It comes, of course, after a bad year for Facebook when it comes to transparency and honesty. (It's been a great year financially!) In May, the company gradually backtracked on it statements from spokespeople after Gizmodo reported on Facebook's trending news section. Then in June, the company gave conflicting statements to Fusion after the website reported that Facebook used location data to suggest friends. And most recently — as we noted in Volume 1 of what's now an ongoing story — Facebook has dismissed reports that fake news played a role in the US election but refuses to release evidence or data to back up its claims.
As the Verge rightly says, that's something to keep in mind.