Frances Haugen in 60 Minutes: Why the Facebook whistleblower drop is different from other PR crises

On Sunday night, a Facebook staffer had previously revealed the corruption of internal documents about the company came in 60 Minutes to reveal his identity.

Frances Haugen, a former product manager of Facebook’s civic integrity team, shared documents based on an explosive series of Wall Street Journal articles. Reports reveal that the company is aware that its products can cause significant harm – including adverse effects on the mental health of teenagers – but it still hasn’t made any major changes. -or to fix problems.

“There are conflicts of interest between what’s good for the public and what’s good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over, has chosen to be optimized for self-interest, like making more money. , ”Haugen said in an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday.

The staff also shared new allegations – not yet covered in many WSJ reports – about Facebook lending its standards to misinformation after the 2020 presidential election, the upcoming January 6 riots in the US capital.

In a memo the internal staff obtained and published on Friday by the New York Times, vice president of public policy and world affairs, Nick Clegg, writes that responsibility for January 6 “rests with those who perpetrate violence, and those who are in politics and everywhere that they are actively encouraged. ” Clegg also wrote that Facebook was not a “major cause of polarization.”

Even for Facebook, which has been filled with PR and political crises over the past five years – it’s a daunting opportunity for the company and the billions of people to use its products. Also, in response to documents revealed by the whistleblower, the company stopped developing the Instagram product for Kids, brought in two executives before Congress witnessed, and launched a PR offensive that was scrapped. the Journal’s reporting of “cherry picking.”

The whistleblower also shared inside Facebook documents with lawmakers, and is expected to testify before members of Congress on Tuesday. The fact that the whistleblower negotiated with Senators shows how U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view social media companies like Facebook with more concern – and they’re more adept at scrutinizing them.

“This is the first time I remember anything dramatic it was, with the anonymous whistleblower, this many documents, and a huge revelation,” said Katie Harbat, a former public policy director. on Facebook which is now affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Atlantic Council.

While many Facebook employees have spoken out against the company anonymously or internally, very few – especially high -ranking levels – have spoken out on record against Facebook. And they have yet to reveal strong evidence that the company seems to understand but ignore the systematic damages it is causing.

Nor has a Facebook defector had such a press launch: first, a series of investigative reports with a headline publication, then an unveiling on primetime television, and later confirmed in front of Congress – all for a few weeks.

The extent to which Facebook knows about the harmful effects of its products and restrains that knowledge from the public causes lawmakers such as Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to compare the company’s tactics to those of Big Tobacco.

Facebook has already responded to allegations with a playbook defense, similar to its response to President Biden’s criticism that the platform “killing people” due to the spread of misinformation on Covid-19 on the platform. The company and its leaders argue that the allegations are sensational and untrue, that information is taken out of context, and that Facebook isn’t the only one to blame for the world’s problems.

And as did the recent debate between Biden and Facebook’s Covid-19 misinformation, Facebook is questioning the credibility of outside research on how its platforms are performing.

At this hour, the company went so far as to damage some of it own research on the content of researchers about the negative effects of Instagram on the mental health of teens, when last week it was distributed a annotated version in the original research first published in the Journal. In its annotated slides, Facebook said the slide’s own titles own researchers who “can make sense” of insights about how Instagram can negatively contribute to image issues. body of teenage girls. The company also said the size of the study was limited.

The fact that the company disputes the accuracy of its own research findings shows how damaging the account is to come out of the whistleblower’s documents, and how quickly the company can move to change the account. .

“This is a great moment,” said Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook’s former Global Head of Elections Integrity Ops for Facebook. He’s been a critical critic of the company since his departure in November 2018. “Over the years, we’ve been aware of most of these issues – through journalists and researchers – but Facebook has said they have an ax to grind. “we should not trust what they say. At this hour, the documents speak for themselves,” he told Recode.

One reason why the more recent scandal feels even more important is that Politicians on both sides of the aisle feel cheated on Facebook because they previously asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the mental health effects of Instagram of children and teenagers, and the company has not yet arrived in time. At the time, Zuckerberg said he didn’t believe the research was a “conclusion,” and that “overall, the research we’ve seen that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive consequences. mental health benefits ” – but he did not disclose the negatives of the research cited in the WSJ report, including that 13% of British teen users and 6% of American teen users studied who had suicidal thoughts followed by attempting to kill themselves on Instagram.

The company also did not share the research in response to two separate questions by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-MA), and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) when they asked for Facebook research about the matter after a congressional hearing in March. hearing

And even more so with current and former Facebook employees – instead of silencing the company reported communication tightness among its staff – began you are more obvious discuss the company Twitter issues, and internal company settings such as company message boards, according to a report from the New York Times .

Some researchers working at the company felt “ashamed” that Facebook dismissed the quality of work of its own staff, according to The Time. Facebook, like other leading tech companies, boasts of hiring world -renowned researchers and engineering talent. If its image is further tarnished in the engineering and academic communities, it could limit the caliber of employees it can recruit.

“I think it’s wrong for Facebook to calculate what this watershed moment is, not just because the public now has a look at these documents, but because employees are starting to get angry,” Eisenstat said. in Recode.

In the coming days, the attention around the whistleblower is likely to shift to include his personal story: his background, what he did on Facebook, whether he has an incentive to share this information other than for the benefit of publicly, and how he can face legal Challenges or even retaliation for his actions (Facebook executives swear an oath they won’t do so).

But the whistleblower who comes forward is more than an individual. In disclosing thousands of documents involving the work of many people at the company – which were later largely ignored by top executives – this whistleblower reigned in long -standing debates inside and outside the company. of Facebook errors.

“[The whistleblower] provides an unparalleled and unparalleled view of the extent to which Facebook executives deliberately ignore the life-and-death consequences of their own products and decisions, ”said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of nonprofit policy Accountable Tech, at Recode. “And he prepared the way for others to speak.”

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