Facebook’s pushback: Stem the leaks, spin the politics, don’t say sorry
Mark Zuckerberg drove response to disclosures about company’s influence; sending deputies to testify in Congress
The day after former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen went public in October, the company’s team in Washington started working the phones.
To lawmakers and advocacy groups on the right, according to people familiar with the conversations, their message was that Ms. Haugen was trying to help Democrats. Within hours, several conservative news outlets published stories alleging Ms. Haugen was a Democratic activist.
Later, Facebook lobbyists warned Democratic staffers that Republicans were focused on the company’s decision to ban expressions of support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who killed two people during unrest in Kenosha, Wis., and who was later acquitted of homicide and other charges.
The company’s goal, according to Republicans and Democrats familiar with the company’s outreach, was to muddy the waters, divide lawmakers along partisan lines and forestall a cross-party alliance that was emerging to enact tougher rules on social-media companies in general and Facebook in particular.
Ms. Haugen’s revelations, and the thousands of internal documents she took with her when she quit Facebook earlier this year, showed the company’s influence on political discourse, teen mental health and other matters. The resulting backlash was emerging as the company’s biggest crisis in years.
Pushing politics to the forefront was one part of Facebook’s response, in keeping with a sharp-elbowed approach driven by Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, according to people familiar with the matter.
The company conducted reputational reviews of new products. To deter further leaks, internal access settings for research discussions on topics, including mental health and radicalization, were restricted to those directly involved in the work, according to employees and others familiar with the restrictions. Company researchers said they have been asked to submit work on sensitive topics for review by company lawyers, who have sometimes asked for examples of problems to be excised from internal posts.
Mr. Zuckerberg later changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms Inc., to emphasize what he called a new focus on building the metaverse, an immersive digital world he has described as the next phase of the internet. He has been conducting meetings in virtual reality, with digital avatars standing in for the executives, according to people familiar with the meetings. He has encouraged other employees to do the same.
The implication is that Facebook should look toward the future and not get bogged down in the messy past.
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Former executives said Mr. Zuckerberg has told employees not to apologize. In contrast to previous controversies, in which the CEO publicly claimed ownership of the company’s mistakes and typically addressed them head-on, Mr. Zuckerberg has spoken little publicly about Ms. Haugen’s disclosures and sent deputies to testify before Congress.
"When our work is being mischaracterized, we’re not going to apologize," said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone. "We’re going to defend our record."
Facebook has acknowledged changes to its research operations but pledged to continue the work to understand the impact of its platforms. The company has also said that it invests billions of dollars to protect the safety of its users.
Starting in September, The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles, called The Facebook Files, which identified harm caused by the social-media giant’s platforms, as identified by its own researchers, and its challenges in addressing them. Based in part on Ms. Haugen’s documents, the articles detailed such matters as how Facebook’s algorithm fosters discord and how its researchers concluded that its platforms, especially Instagram, could negatively affect teen mental health.
Ms. Haugen subsequently made the documents available to other media outlets, which published their own articles.
Since then, there have been four U.S. congressional hearings related to issues raised in the articles; a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general launched an investigation into Instagram’s effects on children; and more than a half-dozen prominent Meta executives and other senior employees have departed or announced their departures.
"The documents speak for themselves," said Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the leading Republican on the Senate antitrust subcommittee and a member of the consumer protection subcommittee. He said he is pursuing legislation that would promote more market competition in social media and add more protections for children online.
Facebook has responded to criticism by citing billions of dollars of investments it has made in online safety, as well as partnerships with outside entities and experts. During a Sept. 30 hearing, Antigone Davis, Meta’s global head of safety, pointed to the company’s work with its safety advisory board, created more than a decade ago, which includes internet-safety experts from around the world.
Facebook has previously said it conducted its own research to identify issues and devise ways to address them.
Several members of that advisory board, whose organizations are paid $25,000 a year by Meta, were caught off guard by the Journal’s reporting, according to people close to it. The company hadn’t shared its research into Instagram’s effects on teen girls, nor had it disclosed the relatively small amount of resources committed to protect users in developing countries, those people said.
Some advisory-board members proposed quitting, according to people familiar with the discussions. Some board members ultimately drafted a letter shared with Ms. Davis and other Facebook employees on Oct. 11, calling the disclosures "a pivotal moment for Facebook."
The draft letter recommended that Facebook overhaul its business model; appoint an executive focused on safety to report to the CEO; make more internal data available to independent researchers; and clearly explain what kind of regulation they could stomach.
Members of the board spoke with Facebook employees about revising the letter before sending it to Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and other Facebook leaders. In the end, no letter was sent, and no one resigned from the advisory board.
Facebook’s independent oversight board, which provides guidance about the company’s policy-enforcement systems, also expressed its frustrations with the company, stating on its website that Meta had been "not fully forthcoming" in disclosing information about its troubled enforcement program for VIP users, known as XCheck. In response, the company committed to providing the board with what the board called "wider context" going forward.
Mr. Zuckerberg pushed subordinates to respond more forcefully to the bad publicity, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and a former deputy prime minister of the U.K., was among those advising Mr. Zuckerberg to take a more restrained approach, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The company ultimately issued a written statement under Mr. Clegg’s name in which it said the Journal’s articles included "deliberate mischaracterizations" and cherry-picked documents, but said it was legitimate for Facebook to be scrutinized over how it dealt with serious and complex issues.
Among the board of directors, longtime members Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen were the voices encouraging Mr. Zuckerberg to push back against the criticism, according to people familiar with the discussions.
In a virtual meeting in late November, some of Meta’s largest institutional investors asked Facebook to address some of the issues around user safety, according to people familiar with the call. Some investors found Mr. Zuckerberg, who also is chairman, defensive on the call, these people said. They left dissatisfied with Facebook’s overall response, because the company reiterated previous talking points and didn’t share any big new changes, according to a written briefing about the meeting described to the Journal.
Meta shares are down about 9% since the publication of the first of the Journal’s Facebook Files articles.
In early December, Facebook’s board convened for its annual retreat at Mr. Zuckerberg’s 1,300-acre beachfront estate in Kauai, Hawaii. Board members discussed matters including Ms. Haugen and the release of internal documents, regulatory issues and how to chart a path forward for the company on the metaverse, people familiar with the meetings said. While they were losing some top executives and the recent past had been challenging, officials were broadly supportive of Mr. Zuckerberg’s push toward the next phase of the virtual world, people familiar with the discussions said.
Separately, some Meta officials have discussed hiring a high-ranking outsider who could take some of the pressure off Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg and add a fresh perspective to the senior ranks, one person familiar with the discussion said. The Facebook spokesman said no such conversation took place at the board meeting or other official event.
Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t in favor of major changes to Meta’s product strategy. Before the head of Instagram testified at a congressional hearing in December about the platform’s impact on teens, Meta executives discussed the possibility of ending development on its version of Instagram for children, one of the people familiar with those discussions said. Mr. Zuckerberg said that wasn’t an option, the person said. The company has said the project is paused indefinitely.
The company considered suing Ms. Haugen but decided the public perception would be that it was trying to silence a whistleblower, said people familiar with the matter.
Instead, after Ms. Haugen was identified as the source of the documents in an article in the Journal and an appearance on "60 Minutes," prompting some conservative media figures to express skepticism about her motivations, the company and its representatives spread word among lawmakers’ offices, advocacy groups and others that she had partisan motives, according to the people familiar with those conversations. Similar allegations soon appeared in right-leaning publications including the Daily Wire, the Washington Free Beaconand the Spectator.
The articles variously called Ms. Haugen "the frontwoman of a PR campaign pushed by the Democratic party," a "leftist activist" and someone who is "part of a broader Democratic initiative."
Some of the calls were made by Josh Althouse, a public-policy manager in Facebook’s Washington office, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Althouse, a former aide to onetime House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), helps manage Facebook’s relationships with prominent conservatives.
Some of the articles noted that Ms. Haugen was working with a public-relations firm run by former Obama aides, and had contributed just under $2,000 to Democratic politicians over the past five years.
Separately, Facebook representatives alleged in conversations with reporters that she was a proxy for Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire eBay founder who has funded advocacy groups hostile to large technology firms, according to people familiar with the discussions. The Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm co-founded by Mr. Omidyar and his wife, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Haugen has denied any partisan motivations, and said she has accepted limited assistance but no money from Omidyar-affiliated nonprofits. She said she believes the issues identified in the documents stretch across party lines and that in recent months, she has met with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to discuss the company and her views on how it should be regulated.
Some lawmakers believe regulatory action on social media is one of the few areas where bipartisanship is currently possible.
"Their biggest fear has been conservatives and liberals coming together to break up their so-called family of apps, and it could very well be coming very soon," said David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, a conservative group that creates political content on social media. "It’s not every day that [Republican] Mike Lee, [Democrat] Amy Klobuchar and [Republican] Ken Buck get together and break bread on these things—on anything."
Mr. Bozell said he was contacted by the company after Ms. Haugen went public, but they didn’t discuss her. He declined to discuss what was said.
The potential sticking point, according to lawmakers and aides from both parties, will likely be around political speech and what role social-media companies should play in policing it. Another: The abundance of legislative efforts in the works. One Senate aide estimated there are at least 30 bills that have been proposed that would update the regulatory framework for Meta and social media more broadly.
Some former Meta employees have gone public to validate the research findings in the documents, although some of them have criticized the manner in which they became public.
Among them was Samidh Chakrabarti, who founded Facebook’s civic-integrity team, which is devoted to promoting democracy and protecting elections, and ran it for six years before resigning from the company earlier this year. The former executive, who says he declines to speak with reporters on those issues, has been active on Twitter trying to explain technically complex issues and at times rebut the company’s responses to articles based on the disclosures.
"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," he tweeted in September.
In late October, more than a dozen data scientists, engineers and researchers who worked at Facebook and other platforms launched the Integrity Institute, a nonprofit aiming to discuss solutions to platform-design problems at social-media companies. A bipartisan group of senators consulted the institute while drafting legislation that would compel Facebook and other platforms to provide data access to outside researchers.
In the U.K., the document disclosures led legislators to propose updates to a draft bill to regulate large social-media companies by empowering a regulator to oversee how they mitigate harms stemming from their services.
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This month, a U.K. Parliament committee recommended the bill require companies to supply regulators with data such as the proportion of users that are children, and oblige them to find and address "reasonably foreseeable harm" resulting from their platforms—changes the committee chairman said stemmed from the Journal’s reporting.
In the European Union, member states managed to settle their disputes over provisions of a draft social-media regulation bill after the disclosures. Next, the member state Council will negotiate with the EU’s Parliament with the aim of reaching a compromise text and passing it into law in the spring.
In India, Facebook’s largest market by users, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology last month summoned company representatives to a closed-door hearing to discuss safeguarding citizens’ rights and preventing the "misuse of social/online news media platforms," according to an official description of the meeting. Members of Parliament are seeking to initiate in coming months a joint parliamentary committee to investigate Facebook’s operations in India, according to one person familiar with the matter.
Stephan Loerke, chief executive of the World Federation of Advertisers, a trade group that includes many big advertisers and historically has advocated self-regulation, said his group has supported some of the regulation coming out of the U.K. and Europe that would rein in Facebook.
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Inside Facebook, surveys in the weeks following the first articles showed the percentage of employees who reported "optimism" fell by 10 percentage points, while other categories showed a conflicted workforce, according to results reviewed by the Journal. Just under half of employees reported having confidence in leadership, while roughly the same amount said they believed Facebook contributed to social good. About three-quarters reported overall job satisfaction.
Within a couple of months, questions about compensation and benefits surpassed societal issues in the rankings of questions submitted to executives before the company’s weekly question-and-answer session.
On Nov. 18, the most popular question was: "Will our yearly salary raises reflect the increased levels of inflation we’ve been seeing?"
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