WhatsApp’s global outage on 4 October might seem like the biggest crisis for Facebook this week. However, the explosive revelations by a whistle-blower are infinitely more serious and much more damaging.
Frances Haugen is no ordinary whistle-blower. Her revelations on 3 October on 60 Minutes and on 5 October before US legislators are arguably the deepest insight yet into the malfeasance of Facebook and the Machiavellian nature of its management.
She was the product manager of the civic misinformation team, which was tasked with making sure the US’s 2020 election wasn’t manipulated the same way Cambridge Analytica did in 2016 to elect Donald Trump.
With an engineering degree, an MBA from Harvard and 16 years in the internet industry (which included stints working with algorithms at Google, Pinterest and Yelp), Haugen “is using her insider knowledge of the social network to provide new insights that few outsiders have heard before”, as The New York Times’s Sheera Frenkel described her testimony to legislators.
Not only has it confirmed what many suspected about the social-media giant, but it painted an even worse picture of how truly rotten the state of Facebook is – which Haugen said prioritises “growth over safety”.
When Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram suffered a six-hour outage on 4 October, it adversely affected hundreds of millions of businesses that rely on these now-dominant platforms to make money.
“It may not sound like a lot to others, but missing out on four or five hours of sales could be the difference between paying the electricity bill or rent for the month,” an Irish online clothing start-up told The New York Times. Meanwhile, CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw nearly $7-billion wiped off his personal wealth.
Did the markets react with the same moral indignation after Haugen’s appearance on 60 Minutes? Of course not; the markets have as much morality as Carl Niehaus.
Or Mark Zuckerberg.
As Haugen lamented: “There is nobody currently holding Zuckerberg accountable but himself. The buck stops with Mark.”
The Facebook founder has orchestrated a controversial share structure that gives him 55% control of the listed company, which has become a free-for-all for hate speech, disinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies about Covid-19 vaccines.
Haugen gave thousands of documents to The Wall Street Journal, US lawmakers and filed whistle-blower complaints with the US Securities and Exchange Commission about “material misrepresentations and omissions” Facebook made to its shareholders and investors because it hid the explosive internal research she has now made public.
Arguably the most explosive of these revelations was that senior management knew Instagram had serious impacts on the mental health of teenage girls. One slide from an internal research presentation read: “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Meanwhile, the 4 October outage has once again shown how central and inescapable Facebook has become for the 3.5 billion people who use its various apps. That’s half of the global population whose lives and livelihoods are inextricably linked to this dastardly company, which has sacrificed personal privacy for profit. Facebook, as Haugen told 60 Minutes, is “subsidising, is paying for its profits with our safety”.
She told US senators that the social network needs to be more open and provide more insight into how its algorithms operate. “We can afford nothing less than full transparency. As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows and hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable,” she stressed.
How did Facebook respond? By trying to discredit Haugen, calling her “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”.
Tone deaf, as always.
As senator Richard Blumenthal concluded on 5 October: “Mark Zuckerberg may be one of the richest people in the history of the world. But today Frances Haugen showed that one person can stand up to that kind of power and make a difference.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.