October 4, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Meet The Facebook Whistleblower

Facebook's logo reflected on a pair of glasses.
Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

The (bad) news about Facebook and corresponding calls for change just keep coming. Following the public reveal on 60 Minutes of the identity of the whistleblower behind the explosive “Facebook Files” from the Wall Street Journal, another congressional hearing this week will keep Facebook under pressure. In this week’s Decoder, we focus on the revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen’s interview and the responses from advocates, lawmakers, and the company itself. The Decoder is a weekly roundup of news about digital deception. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

  • Facebook Whistleblower: Yesterday, the whistleblower who provided the Wall Street Journal with the documents underpinning its explosive “Facebook Files” reporting appeared on 60 Minutes. On the show, Frances Haugen a data scientist who worked for almost two years on Facebook’s civic misinformation team before leaving in May with a trove of internal research outlined how Facebook is spreading content that it is hateful, divisive, and polarizing because it makes users spend more time on the site, click on more ads, and generate more profits. Haugen also accused the platform of playing a key role in the January 6 insurrection by prematurely removing measures to prevent misinformation which had been implemented ahead of the 2020 election. Gizmondo has a roundup of the nine most horrifying facts revealed during the interview. Slate’s Aaron Mak explains why Frances Haugen might be Facebook’s biggest threat in years.
  • Coming Next: As reported by Ryan Mac and Cecilia Kang in the NYT, Haugen has already filed a whistle-blower complaint against Facebook with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accusing the company of misleading investors; shared documents with a handful of state attorneys general; and established contact with lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic. John Tye, an attorney from Whistleblower Aid representing Haugen, highlighted the complaint on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. On Tuesday, Haugen will also testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security about Instagram’s impact on teenagers’ mental health, the company’s handling of children, and what Congress should do to protect children’s privacy and consumers online.
  • Facebook’s Defense Strategy: Following the interview, Facebook immediately went into defense mode, with its director of policy communications, Lena Pietsch, providing a point-by-point rebuttal to Haugen’s accusations. Just hours before, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for policy and global affairs, said on CNN’s Reliable Sources that any claims that the company was responsible for the Capitol Siege were “ludicrous.” The statement echoed the content and tone of a 1,500-word memo he sent to employees on Friday. The memo, disclosed by the NYT, also refutes the idea that Facebook is the “primary cause of polarization.”
  • Reactions: Clegg’s attempts to gaslight did not go unnoticed. Kara Swisher immediately called out on “Clever Clegg” for engaging in “verbal gymnastics,” while Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, questioned news and media outlets for giving Facebook PR op-ed space or airtime to gaslight instead of treating the company like a “hostile foreign power.” Daniel Kreiss, Professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, agreed with Clegg that social media are not the cause of polarization but reminded everybody that Facebook needs to disclose its data and do more to protect the election. NYU’s Laura Edelson, who testified in front of the House less than a week ago on researching social media, said that Facebook cannot expect anyone to take their word for it.
  • The Data: Instagram’s effect on teen girls was also discussed in a Senate hearing this past week. Prior to the hearing, The Wall Street Journal released six of Facebook’s internal slide decks on Instagram and teens. Facebook itself tried to preempt the story by publishing its own slide decks Teen Mental Health Deep Dive and Hard Life Moments with annotations that sought to contextualize the research and downplay any negative findings. Both TechCruch and the New York Times had good pieces analyzing the respective data and responses. The Times piece highlights how Facebook has effectively denigrated its researchers’ work to save itself.
  • Sen. Blumenthal: In the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal noted that his office set up an Instagram account posing as a thirteen year old girl who followed accounts about eating disorders and dieting. Within a day, the account was being recommended content associated with self-injury and eating disorders. More comments from Sen. Blumenthal made the rounds online after Buzzfeed’s Eric Morrow tweeted a video clip of the Senator asking Antigone Davis, Facebook Head of Global Safety, “Will you commit to ending Finsta?”, to which Davis answered “We don’t actually do Finsta. What Finsta refers to is young people setting up accounts where they want to have more privacy.” While several commentators depicted the Senator as clueless, Slate’s Zamaan Qureshi pointed out that the clip lacked context, and that actually Sen. Blumenthal does know what “Finsta” is, and that he was right to ask about it. Jeff Kosseff of the U.S. Naval Academy, though, notes that ending Finstas might not be as straightforward or beneficial as some believe.
  • Where’s Zuck?: There has been chatter over the past few weeks about how Facebook seems to be protecting its higher-ups from any scandal, and that pattern seemed to be solidified at the hearing.  As The New York Times’ Ryan Mac noted, it is interesting that Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Global Head of Safety, was testifying, rather than Instagram head Adam Mosseri, or Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong pointed out that it really should have been Mosseri on the stand. Following the whistleblower’s damning revelations, the NYT’s Cecilian Kang wondered “Where is Zuckerberg?”
  • The Takes: In Protocol, Ben Brody and Kate Cox point out that these tech hearings seem to be advancing a lot of vitriol — but not a lot of progress on regulations. Also in Protocol, Ben Brody and Issie Lapowsky look at the challenges Congress faces in trying to introduce some transparency and accountability to social media. Issie Lapowsky also looks at the role other providers — such as Apple and Google — should play in keeping kids safe. In the New York Times, Dr. Kate Klonick writes that maybe it’s time for Facebook to change its definition of what makes its product “good.”
  • YouTube: YouTube announced this past week that it would be blocking all anti-vaccine content on its platform. Previously, the company was only banning anti-vaccine content related to coronavirus. On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 a former engineer who worked on YouTube’s algorithm stated that the company does not care about disinformation — only about making sure people keep watching videos. The Intercept also reported that networks of right-wing health care providers have been making millions off of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
  • Research: The Pew Research Center has released a new report on Congressional social media use in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Both Slowbuild and Protocol have interesting pieces analyzing different aspects of the report.

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