Another day, another Facebook scandal. They’ve been happening each year since the site was founded, back in 2004, when a young, arrogant Mark Zuckerberg called early users “dumb fucks” for succumbing to his invention. Over the last decade, the scandals have grown with the company: in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and every year thereafter. As someone who has covered this company almost as long as it’s been alive, I have always felt like the scandals were real, but the repercussions were theater. Think about the sheer scope and impact of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica madness—yet the punishment was a fine by the FTC, for a measly $5 billion. A year later, the company was being investigated again.
This time, the response feels different—partly because of the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, partly because of Zuckerberg’s own stubbornness, and partly because Congress finally seems to have had enough. But mostly, it’s because of a slew of internal documents released by a Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen; a shocking series, “The Facebook Files,” published in The Wall Street Journal; and Haugen’s poised, professional, and gracious testimony on Tuesday before Congress. This time, it feels as though real change could be afoot.
As I watched the Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, I didn’t have the same skeptical feeling that this would all be for naught. Instead, the hearing felt sobering. There was no grandstanding, and there were no dumb questions by lawmakers. Even Ted Cruz, whose children are 10 and 13, seemed clear-headed. This was all thanks to Haugen, who expertly explained how Facebook chooses to put profits before anything else, no matter the negative repercussions for users. She explained, from an insider’s perspective, that the company is fully aware it is being duplicitous about the harm its platform sows. Perhaps most importantly, she explained what we have all long suspected, detailing exactly how Instagram is harming teens, leading to body-image problems and even contributing to the rise in suicides and a litany of other issues with children. During the hearing, Senator Amy Klobuchar told Haugen, “I think the time has come for action, and I think you are the catalyst for that action.”
What made Haugen seem like a potential catalyst is the way she laid blame where it belonged: at the top. “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said at the opening of her testimony, then noted that it was people like Zuckerberg—who knew that was the case but chose not to make the appropriate changes—who were at fault. And while Haugen isn’t the first whistleblower to come out of Facebook—last year, Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist who was fired by Facebook, leaked a memo that explained how the company was enabling politicians to mislead the public and gain power using fake accounts—Haugen is doing so at a unique time.
Thanks to the COVID pandemic, much of the world has been stuck at home, spending more time than ever on social media, whose negative effects have become more apparent. For teens, who couldn’t hang out with their friends, the problems were multiplied exponentially. Adults were affected by their own FOMO, watching people with bigger homes and more extravagant lives comfortably weather the storm. Misinformation was everywhere and more easily identifiable. We all became witnesses to the fake news spreading online around the 2020 election, and worse, the insanity around COVID vaccines, with made-up stories shared almost predominantly on Facebook. It’s as if everyday Americans have spent the past year and a half in a master class for how social media can wreak havoc on a society. We’re all a little fed up with the state of the country, and we’re all seemingly aware that it’s social media that’s contributing to making us feel that way.
Then there’s Zuckerberg himself. Last month, The New York Times reported what had started to play out in real life: that Zuckerberg has decided he’s done saying sorry. After years of performative contrition over everything from privacy issues to the potential destabilization of democracy, Zuckerberg has apparently decided enough is enough—there is no more sorry. Instead, he has remained lighthearted when stories have come out about the company’s wrongdoing. Recently, he joked on Facebook about the mislabeling of his hydrofoil board (which is not an “electric surfboard”), rather than addressing these latest scandals that have engulfed Facebook over the past three weeks. To a mainstream audience—and especially one that has heard about Facebook’s misdeeds over and over again—the effect is unappealing. Public sentiment might have saved Zuckerberg before, but this time, the only people cheering for him are those who still work at his company.
Facebook employees are not bad people. I personally know dozens of current and former Facebook engineers, designers, data miners, communications staff, and product managers who believe they work for a company that makes the world a better place. They don’t see, hands on, the negatives of the platform they help build and maintain; they see only the little bits of code they write, or the user interface creations they toil over that are then slotted into the larger website. In talking to them, I’ve come to realize they’re like ants crawling through a massive carpet, unable to see the larger tapestry. And while some of the people at the top can see that 20,000-foot view, and in turn the harm Facebook inflicts on its users, they also have a strange view of what’s really happening. One higher-up I spoke to said the negative data represents a “miniscule percentage” of total interactions on the platform. While this may be statistically true, even single-digit percentages on Facebook are massive numbers. If some aspect of Facebook negatively affects just 1% of its current 2.9 billion monthly active users, that corresponds to 29 million people.
As Haugen noted in her testimony, there is one person who’s fully aware of this, and that’s the guy who runs the show. As Haugen pointed out, the documents she gave to the Journal, and subsequently to Congress, detailing all of the negative effects the platform has on society, and especially on children, are documents that Zuckerberg personally knew about. It was Zuckerberg who personally chose not to respond, even though he was aware that doing so could have prevented the spread of hate speech and misinformation on the site, because he believed it would have affected “meaningful social interaction,” also known as MSI—one of the company’s most important internal metrics. Facebook, as Senator Blumenthal said following the hearing, has “chosen the greediest path.”
Zuckerberg himself tried to downplay Haugen’s testimony, writing in a memo he sent out to employees and then posted on Facebook that the hearing “misrepresents our work and our motives.” He also argued that, “If we didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would we employ so many more people dedicated to this than any other company in our space.” But as Haugen noted, whatever the company is doing is clearly not enough. Relying on algorithms to police the speech of 2.9 billion people clearly isn’t working, surely Zuckerberg knows that?
When I first started covering tech companies, what journalists wrote about them had an impact. Even Facebook paused its bad behavior, though there was no guarantee it wouldn’t start up again. The iEconomy series by The New York Times led to sweeping changes at Apple; a slew of stories about Google’s and Apple’s privacy violations in the early days of the smartphone led the companies to change how they collected data; constant coverage of Twitter’s trolls eventually led the company to change its algorithms and try to weed out hateful behavior; and even stories on Facebook’s privacy violations led to FTC investigations and eventual (lax) oversight. As tech companies have grown increasingly rich and powerful, the ability to keep them in check has become more difficult, and in some instances impossible. Even the U.S. government isn’t sure how to proceed anymore, in large part because these companies are so rich. The FAANG stocks alone—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet—add up to an astounding $7 trillion market cap. Throw in Microsoft and Tesla, and the combined market worth of these seven companies is over $10 trillion. Collectively, they have over half a trillion dollars in cash on hand and spend millions on lobbying in Washington to ensure they get their way.
So far, Facebook has been able to shrug off repercussions. One of the most striking examples of this was illustrated in the data Haugen leaked to the Journal. One story showed how Facebook was fully aware that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Yet, when Zuckerberg went before Congress last March, he said, “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits.” As the Journal noted, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, told reporters that the app’s effect on teenage well-being is likely “quite small”—another lie, the data Haugen released suggests. When Fake Famous, a documentary I directed for HBO, came out last year detailing how easy it was to buy fake Instagram engagement, including likes, followers, and comments, Mosseri took to Instagram to assert the opposite, even though the film had disproven him. What’s increasingly apparent is that journalism is no longer enough to keep behemoth tech companies in check.