An illustration of a teacup with the Facebook spilling tea.
Former Facebook staffers are spilling the tea over the company's public reaction to Frances Haugen's whistleblowing.
Christopher T. Fong/Protocol
Protocol | Policy

‘Beyond the pale’: Former Facebook staffers react to the company’s Haugen spin

"As a former employee, I disagreed with what they said, and as a communications professional, I think it was really bad PR."

Facebook's efforts to undermine the testimony of whistleblower Frances Haugen began before she even left the Senate Commerce Committee hearing room Tuesday.

"Just pointing out the fact that @FrancesHaugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook," spokesperson Andy Stone said in a tweet that ended up being read aloud by Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, during the hearing.

Another statement from Policy Communications Director Lena Pietsch referred to Haugen dismissively as someone who "worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports" and "never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives."

For Nu Wexler, a former Facebook policy communications staffer, the anti-Haugen spin was overkill. "The statement they put out about Frances Haugen was beyond the pale," said Wexler, who also worked in policy communications at Google and Twitter. "As a former employee, I disagreed with what they said, and as a communications professional, I think it was really bad PR."

The counterattack strategy has differed dramatically from the regretful responses Facebook has offered in past episodes, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In those cases, the company often responded with an apology and a plan.

This time around, from Mark Zuckerberg on down, the company has been decidedly less apologetic, with Haugen as a case study for the new approach. For some former Facebook employees watching from home, the experiment in public aggression is backfiring.

From Wexler's point of view, Haugen demonstrated clear facility of the facts and familiarity with the industry. "They're going to have a hard time convincing people that she doesn't know what she's talking about," he said.

Katie Harbath, a public policy director at Facebook for 10 years who left the company in March, said, "All these folks, whether they had direct reports or not, they all have perspective and expertise that should be heard."

"It shouldn't be the only one that's heard," she added.

Another former Facebook communications staffer called the company's response "a mistake." "It's not about her. The whole dialogue that's happening is not about whether she's a credible messenger or not," the former staffer said, before adding, "She is a pretty credible messenger."

In an organization as large as Facebook, this former employee said, the communications team can often struggle to get a view of all of the information they need to respond to criticism at the exact moment they need to respond. "Through the process of digging up the facts, any individual small team will inevitably only see a part of what's going on. It's the proverbial elephant and the five blind men," the former staffer said. "As messaging is crafted people start focusing on that small part, so the response gets down-leveled to the trees instead of focusing on the forest."

In this case, the staffer said, the trees are Haugen's bona fides. The forest is the substance of her claims.

The remarks from Stone and Pietsch have also prompted former employees, some of whom held more senior roles during their time at Facebook, to publicly rally to Haugen's defense.

"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," tweeted Samidh Chakrabarti, who founded the civic integrity team Haugen worked on, and whose breakup she noted in her Senate testimony. "There are countless other integrity professionals with experience on the issues raised today — past & present, within FB & across industry — who similarly agree with the substantive points shared at the hearing and believe it merits public conversation."

Adam Conner, vice president for tech policy at the Center for American Progress, echoed Chakrabarti and warned of a domino effect if Facebook pushes back too hard against Haugen. "I know plenty of former Facebook employees are watching to see if FB legal and comms will retaliate against @FrancesHaugen," Conner tweeted. "If they do, a lot more people with a lot more experiences may step forward."

Facebook didn't respond to a question about why it's taking such an unapologetic approach toward Haugen's disclosures.

Harbath has a theory: "The other one wasn't working."