A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Frances Haugen was a product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team. “During her time at Facebook,” her bio says, “Frances became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety — putting people’s lives at risk. As a last resort and at great personal risk, Frances made the courageous act to blow the whistle.”
Haugen now identifies herself as “an advocate for public oversight of social media.” She rolled out a new website, Twitter profile and online identity in the minutes before her blockbuster “60 Minutes” interview aired on CBS.
The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Haugen was the key source for last month’s “Facebook Files” project. Reporter Jeff Horwitz said he had been calling her “Sean” for “the past ten months.” Now, he said, Haugen “will be speaking for herself from here on out.”
Horwitz also published a profile of Haugen at the same time the “60 Minutes” story premiered. “If people just hate Facebook more because of what I’ve done, then I’ve failed,” she told the Journal. She said she’s trying to save Facebook, not destroy it.
“I believe in truth and reconciliation — we need to admit reality,” Haugen said. “The first step of that is documentation.”
The question, as always, is: Will advertisers and investors care about any of this?
Four standout quotes from “60 Minutes”
— “The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world,” Haugen said, citing Myanmar as an example.
— “There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
— “Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money.”
— “No one at Facebook is malevolent, but the incentives are misaligned.”
Facebook VP Nick Clegg agreed to my “Reliable Sources” interview request in a clear effort to get ahead of the “60 Minutes” broadcast. When we spoke on Sunday morning, eight hours before “60,” Clegg made a few main points. First, that the company can’t possibly control all of the content posted to its platforms. Second, that “our job is to mitigate the bad, reduce it — and amplify the good.” And third, that FB is actually doing a rather fine job of reduction and amplification, despite the popular narrative in the press. Here’s the interview transcript.
When I commented that “a part of me feels like I’m interviewing the head of a tobacco company right now,” or the head of a giant casino, Clegg responded that the comparison is “profoundly false.” A third of the world’s population “enjoys using these apps,” he said. “They do it because they like exchanging their views, their feelings, and their experiences.”
Clegg also said the social media firm will continue conducting internal research to understand the effects of its platforms.
Facebook’s topline response to Haugen
Facebook spokesperson Lena Pietsch said this on Sunday night: “Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place. We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
An area of agreement?
Pelley’s report about Haugen ended on this note: “She believes the federal government should impose regulations.” Haugen said, “I’m hoping that this will have had a big enough impact on the world that they get the fortitude and the motivation to actually go put those regulations into place. That’s my hope.”
I doubt Haugen sees eye to eye with Clegg about how exactly those regulations should be written or what they should say. But Facebook has been calling for Washington to step in for months and months. “I think regulation would really help,” Clegg said when I brought this up. “Regulations,” a source in Facebook’s DC operation said, is “in part how this story moves forward.”
Here’s what happens next…
— “Last month,” Pelley reported, “Haugen’s lawyers filed at least eight complaints with the SEC, which enforces the law in financial markets,” charging Facebook with lying to investors. Will the agency follow up?
— Haugen will testify at a Senate hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online” on Tuesday. Sen. Amy Klobuchar issued a statement to thank Haugen “for coming forward with her brave testimony.”
— On a semi-related note, Facebook is supposed to file a response to the FTC’s antitrust lawsuit on Monday.
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.