Facebook has chosen to respond to whistleblower Frances Haugen in the most cowardly way possible: by hiding Mark Zuckerberg, the man ultimately responsible for Facebook’s decisions, and beginning the process of trying to smear and discredit Haugen.
This is some Big Tobacco bullshit — precisely what sleazeball PR guru John Scanlon was hired to do when Jeffrey Wigand blew the whistle on tobacco company Brown and Williamson. Scanlon’s task was to change “the story of B&W to a narrative about Wigand’s personality.”
Of course, that strategy “backfired completely,” Vanity Fair reported in 2004. It probably won’t work here, either. One senator, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, has already called Haugen “a 21st-century American hero,” adding that “our nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude.”
Like Wigand, Haugen has receipts: internal documents and data from Facebook’s own researchers, all of which make for serious and supported claims about the platform’s harms and choices the company made to maximize profit and engagement in ways that would increase those harms. It is possible to contend with her allegations on the merits, but Facebook is too immoral for that — and Zuckerberg has decided he is above it, instead going on vacation.
Let’s read through today’s Facebook statement on the Haugen hearing together, shall we?
Facebook PR: “Today a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.”
Translation: Today, a peon testified in Congress; she is too unimportant to name. Nothing she says is worthwhile because she is not fancy enough. And even though she had access to multiple internal research documents supporting her claims, you can’t trust her testimony on them — despite her subject matter expertise and years of experience in the field — because she didn’t write them herself.
Facebook PR: “We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about.”
Translation: We think she’s lying but won’t say how, or about what, specifically.
Facebook PR: “Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”
Translation: It is time to change the subject to something we like better, even though Haugen herself said Facebook is presenting false choices when it comes to privacy and free speech.
Now, let’s all notice what’s missing. Though Facebook disputes Haugen’s characterizations of the research in question, it doesn’t provide its own interpretation. Nor does it engage any of the claims Haugen makes — which are, incidentally, supported by internal Facebook research Haugen provided. If Facebook had evidence, it would show it.
After seeing this statement, the guy who was once Haugen’s boss’s boss, Samidh Chakrabarti, backed Haugen. Her concerns are real, he said. And as Facebook’s Civic Integrity Lead, he did have direct reports and sat in on C-suite conversations.
Well I was there for over 6 years, had numerous direct reports, and led many decision meetings with C-level execs, and I find the perspectives shared on the need for algorithmic regulation, research transparency, and independent oversight to be entirely valid for debate. pic.twitter.com/UT54vcsWzX— Samidh (@samidh) October 5, 2021
But the funniest part is the absence of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and the only shareholder with the power to replace himself. Zuckerberg started Facebook as a Hot-or-Not clone — which almost certainly would negatively affect teen girls’ self-esteem. (At least he is consistent, I guess.) The decisions Haugen alleges, which put profits ahead of morals, have also enriched him more than anyone else. The buck stops, quite literally, with him. So where is he?
If the best Facebook can come up with is this disgusting attempt at character assassination, Haugen is telling God’s own truth. We should listen to her.
Update 5:21PM ET: Adds Samidh Chakrabarti’s tweet in support of Frances Haugen.