‘Facebook Papers’ turn up heat on embattled social media platform
Several news outlets published stories Monday based on thousands of internal Facebook documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, ratcheting up the pressure on a company already besieged by weeks of high-profile criticism.
Together the reports paint a picture of a company that prioritizes profits to the point of ignoring clear internal warning signs, dismisses concerns outside of the United States and is desperate to cling onto an aging user base.
“One of the most important themes that runs through all of these revelations is that Facebook was very much aware of all of its vulnerabilities and shortcomings, had internal research to explain these problems and in case after case top management chose to protect engagement and growth over safety concerns,” Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, told The Hill.
One of the biggest takeaways from the reporting on the trove of documents is that Facebook has often known about problems on the platform but chose not to act on them for fear of damaging its bottom line.
For example, members of the Integrity team — of which Haugen was previously a member — lamented that the algorithm powering the news feed was actively undercutting efforts to suppress harmful content, according to Bloomberg News.
That sort of conflict manifested itself in the run-up to Jan. 6 when, per Politico, “research based policy decisions” were rejected by senior leadership that would have made it more difficult for violent rightwing groups to organize the deadly insurrection.
Documents showed the company was slow to react to the “Stop the Steal” movement that sought to sow doubt about former President Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election.
“After the Capitol insurrection and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages, and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement,” one internal analysis first reported on by BuzzFeed earlier this year reads.
In 2019, a Facebook researcher conducted a study that found it took just five days for the platform to start recommending QAnon content to a fake account described as a conservative mom. Suggestions to add more friction to the content recommendation system were reportedly largely ignored by high level officials.
The reports released Monday also indicate that Facebook has failed to consistently apply its policies abroad, leaving millions of users at risk.
In India, The New York Times reported, bots and fake accounts wreaked havoc on national elections, misinformation spread rapidly during the pandemic and anti-Pakistan content flourished.
A piece in The Associated Press detailed how Facebook and Instagram were being used to trade and sell maids in the Middle East. The platforms were reportedly aware of the problem but took insufficient steps to address it to the point that Apple threatened to pull the products from its App Store.
Another major takeaway is that despite consistently pulling in huge quarterly revenues, internally Facebook is struggling to grapple with a rapidly aging average user base.
Teenage users of the Facebook app had declined 13 percent since 2019, according to one memo reported on by The Verge, and were projected to drop another 45 percent over the next two years.
Instagram, which has helped the social media giant maintain a foothold with younger users, has also struggled to compete with TikTok and Snapchat, according to The Verge.
The long-term decline in lucrative user groups was largely kept from investors, Bloomberg reported. That issue could be a significant point of investigation for the Securities and Exchange Commission, where Haugen initially filed her whistleblower complaint.
The “Facebook Papers” also illustrated the degree to which CEO Mark Zuckerberg is deeply involved in decision making at the company.
He personally decided to comply with the Vietnamese Communist Party’s request to censor anti-government dissidents, The Washington Post reported, and has maintained a hands-on approach in most product and policy decisions.
A group of six major racial justice organizations called for the founder’s resignation on the back of the reports, saying in a joint statement that it shows “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook leadership will continue to sacrifice the safety of our communities to line their pockets.”
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone pushed back on the central arguments in Monday’s reporting in a statement touting investment in cleaning up the platform.
“At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false,” he said. “Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13 billion and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
After weeks of negative press for Facebook kicked off by The Wall Street Journal’s initial series on Haugen’s documents and capped by the dozens of stories released Monday, attention will now turn to Washington.
Lawmakers were fired up after Haugen’s appearance before the Senate, but the path forward for policy solutions remains unclear.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate subcommittee dedicated to antitrust, called for movement on a federal privacy standard, legislation on algorithms and revamping of competition laws.
“The time has come for action from all sides to rein in big tech,” she said in a statement Monday.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) reupped calls to develop new rules to protect teens online and demanded Facebook release its research on its algorithms’ “harms to teens and even to our democracy.”
Barrett suggested to The Hill that lawmakers should empower the Federal Trade Commission to oversee social media more aggressively.
Despite the looming threat of Congressional action and ongoing legal challenges from regulators, Facebook remains staggeringly powerful.
Facebook stock rose Monday on the back of an earnings report that revealed the company made $28.2 billion last quarter and has 3.58 billion global users.
“My view on what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to create a false picture about our company,” Zuckerberg said during an earnings call Monday. “The reality is that we have an open culture, where we encourage discussion and research.”