IImagine what it’s like to work on Facebook this week. For about five years, much of the world has slowly turned against the service that once promised to connect the world and spread democracy and cookies and puppies and whatnot. But this week, in the wake of revelations of gross wrongdoing and moral irresponsibility by Facebook leaders, it must be excruciating to stand up to friends and family, even distant Facebook friends.
In recent days, Frances Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s “civic integrity team,” has launched a skillful and professional public assault on the company. Unlike previous Facebook whistleblowers, such as former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, Haugen managed to capture the interest and attention of political leaders and journalists around the world. We have to wonder why Haugen has had such traction and impact when Zhang, who was fired for raising objections within the company to Facebook’s human rights issues, did not.
The simple answer is that Haugen fueled an issue that worries many, if not most, parents in the developed world: Instagram’s influence on the prevalence of eating disorders, self-harm and suicide among adolescent girls. This was an issue that Americans, especially, understand and back down against.
Zhang, by contrast, raised issues that Americans tend not to care about: the fate of people beyond the United States. Zhang publicly broke up with Facebook in April 2021 when he sat down for a moving interview with Guardian reporter Julia Carrie Wong. That followed a BuzzFeed News reveal in September 2020 that Zhang had posted on his internal Facebook page. a long farewell memo criticize the company for ignoring or denying the ease and success with which authoritarian leaders and movements had hijacked Facebook services to undermine or overthrow democracies.
“In the three years that I have spent on Facebook,” Zhang wrote, “I have encountered multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on a large scale to mislead their own citizens, and it caused international news on multiple occasions.” . He cited problems in Azerbaijan, Honduras, India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador. Zhang showed how countries like Azerbaijan and Honduras, which are important enough for Facebook to drive membership growth, are not important enough for Facebook to limit the spread of manipulative fake accounts that inflate authoritarian leaders. In other words, the people of Azerbaijan are worth something to Facebook just for their clicks, not for their lives or freedoms.
If the US senators and producers of 60 Minutes had cared about the people of Honduras, we could have had this moment in April, when Zhang spoke to The Guardian and showed Wong documentation supporting his claims.
Documents matter. But some documents matter more than others. In addition to the topic being different, Haugen published reports from Facebook’s research wing, a team dedicated to the social sciences and data analysis that is supposed to help company leaders understand the consequences of their technology policies and designs. . Those documents, reported on by the Wall Street Journal in a poignant series of stories two weeks ago, show a disturbing pattern of indifference among top Facebook executives. Them I do not take care on adolescent health. Them I do not take care to prevent international soccer star Neymar from vindictively distributing nude images of a woman who had accused him of rape. Them I did not want to to make major internal changes to the way Facebook groups work to stop the flow of anti-vaccine misinformation. These documents, generated by the research group within Facebook, show that Facebook executives were aware of all this damage and to what extent Facebook contributed to it. That made Haugen’s campaign more successful than Zhang’s even before anyone had heard of Haugen.
Campaign strategy is important. Haugen led with the documents and let the Wall Street Journal delve into them, raising the issues before his identity or biography. Yet once he appeared on 60 Minutes on Sunday, Haugen became history, or so Facebook executives hoped.
Like they did with Zhang, Facebook executives immediately tried to portray Haugen as less important to the company than her. Facebook’s spectacularly bad PR department kept Haugen from working for Facebook for only two years, never meeting with its top leaders, and not producing any of the documents it published. Of course, Haugen never claimed anything more. He made Facebook Research the protagonist. Facebook is trying to solve the problem about Haugen’s resume, which couldn’t be more out of place.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats, who now runs Facebook’s global public affairs office as skillfully and successfully as he ran his party, embarrassed himself on American television when he objected to comparing Facebook to tobacco companies by noting that Facebook is spectacularly popular, as if tobacco had not once been popular as well. The fact that both have addictive properties did not seem to happen to the former statesman.
On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg sent a memo to Facebook staff defending the company against Haugen’s testimony and avoiding any of the issues revealed by leaked Facebook Research reports. “The argument that we deliberately promote content that infuriates people for profit is deeply illogical,” Zuckerberg said in the memo.
Except Haugen didn’t say exactly that. “Deliberately” is the key here. He explained, as many academics and even Facebook executives have done, that content that generates strong “engagement” (clicks, shares, likes, and comments) spreads further and faster than posts that don’t. . Anger happens to be a basic human emotion. Therefore, posts from friends and family that cause outrage tend to generate a lot of clicks, shares, likes, and comments.
Facebook may not deliberately spread divisive and destructive posts. But it is in the design anyway. Then it happens, and Facebook knows it happens. But to stop it, Facebook would have to completely redesign itself and abandon its original sin: the commitment to maximize engagement and growth. Zuckerberg would never do that.
Perhaps the most disappointing reaction came from Monika Bickert, a once-respected lawyer and diplomat who is now the director of Global Policy Management at Facebook. In response to the very real and documented damage that Instagram does to untold numbers of teenagers and young women, Bickert said that “most of the young people on Instagram are having a good experience.”
This is amazing. It really is disgusting. As Haugen pointed out, only ten percent of smokers ever get lung cancer, yet we now know, largely due to leaked corporate documents, that tobacco companies knew all along that they were killing people, even if ( cough, cough) most smokers died. of another thing.
We should expect many more defections and resignations from Facebook in the coming days. With such amoral leadership, it must be difficult for so many talented people to go to work there every day.
In reality, we should never expect corporate leaders to act in the public interest. But we can and should expect them to tell the full and unadorned truth. Fortunately for the public, Facebook officials are so bad at varnishing that the truth comes out despite their best efforts to conceal it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism