Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation and rabble rousing after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in last year’s elections in a money-making move that a company whistleblower alleges contributed to the deadly Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
The whistleblower, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, also asserted during an exclusive interview that aired Sunday on CBS’s 60 Minutes that a 2018 change to the content flow in Facebook’s news feeds contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.
Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back – a pattern that helped the Menlo Park, Calif., company sell more of the digital ads that generate most of its advertising.
“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” said Ms. Haugen, who joined Facebook in 2019 after working at other Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Pinterest. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
Facebook’s annual revenue has more than doubled from US$56-billion in 2018 to a projected US$119-billion this year, based on the estimates of analysts surveyed by FactSet. Meanwhile, the company’s market value has soared from US$375-billion at the end of 2018 to nearly US$1-trillion now.
Even before the full interview came out, a top Facebook executive was deriding the whistleblower’s allegations as “misleading.”
“Social media has had a big impact on society in recent years, and Facebook is often a place where much of this debate plays out,” Nick Clegg, the company’s vice-president of policy and public affairs, wrote to Facebook employees in a memo sent Friday. “But what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarization.”
The 60 Minutes interview intensifies the spotlight already glaring on Facebook as lawmakers and regulators around the world scrutinize the social networking’s immense power to shape opinions and its polarizing effects on society.
The backlash has been intensifying since The Wall Street Journal’s mid-September publication of an expose that revealed Facebook’s own internal research had concluded the social network’s attention-seeking algorithms had helped foster political dissent and contributed to mental health and emotional problems among teens, especially girls. After copying thousands of pages of Facebook’s internal research, Ms. Haugen leaked them to the Journal to provide the foundation for a succession of stories packaged as the “Facebook Files.”
Although Facebook asserted the Journal had cherry picked the most damaging information in the internal documents to cast the company in the worst possible light, the revelations prompted an indefinite delay in the rollout of a kids’ version of its popular photo- and video-sharing app, Instagram. Facebook currently requires people to be at least 13 years old to open an Instagram account.
Mr. Clegg was already trying to contain the fallout in 1,500-word memo warning Facebook employees that the whistleblower interview may subject them to more hard questions from family and friends about the social network’s corrosive side effects.
Then on Sunday morning, Mr. Clegg appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources program in another pre-emptive attempt to soften the blow of the bombshell dropped on 60 Minutes.
“Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform,” Mr. Clegg told CNN, “we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100 per cent of the time.” He said that’s because of the “instantaneous and spontaneous form of communication” on Facebook, adding, “I think we do more than any reasonable person can expect to.”
Ms. Haugen, 37, has filed at least eight complaints with U.S. securities regulators alleging Facebook has violated the law by withholding information about the risks posed by its social network, according to 60 Minutes. Facebook in turn could take legal action against her if it asserts she stole confidential information from the company.
“No one at Facebook is malevolent,” Ms. Haugen said during the interview. “But the incentives are misaligned, right? Like, Facebook makes more money when you consume more content. People enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction. And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact and the more they consume.”
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