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Photo: Frances Haugen

Facebook’s whistleblower speaks

Facebook’s whistleblower speaks

Good morning! This Monday, Facebook is in crisis mode, Rivian is set to IPO, and Trump wants his Twitter account back.

Also, check out our newest manual, on all the ways "buy now, pay later" is taking over the future of payments. You can read it all at once, or in several installments.

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The Big Story

The Frances Haugen story

Frances Haugen is the source behind the Facebook Files. Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook's civic integrity team, went on "60 Minutes" to reveal herself as the whistleblower, and talk about what she saw during her time at the company.

  • "The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was," she said, "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."
  • She also said a 2018 change to Facebook's algorithm was a turning point. That was when Facebook started to prioritize Meaningful Social Interaction, which translated to boosting posts that got lots of engagement. Anger and rage and lies all get engagement. "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."
  • And she said that after the 2020 election, during which Facebook took a number of actions on political content, the company shut down most of those tools and went back to not paying close attention. That led in part to the Capitol riot in January, which has become an all-too-real-world example of how misinformation and malice online can contribute to offline harm.

Facebook tried to front-run the TV segment through a Workplace post from Nick Clegg. (Workplace, where Haugen found much of her information, is an increasingly central character in this story.) Clegg's note was framed as: "Here's what to tell your friends and family about why you work at Facebook." Let's just say, if you're ever in the position of having to help your team do that, you're … not doing so hot. And Facebook's case for Facebook, as usual, is that Facebook's trying very hard and also isn't nearly as important as people say.

  • "If it were true that Facebook is the chief cause of polarization," Clegg said, "we would expect to see it going up wherever Facebook is popular. It isn't. In fact, polarization has gone down in a number of countries with high social media use at the same time that it has risen in the U.S."
  • Clegg also preemptively responded to a mention of that 2018 algorithm change and Facebook's push to prioritize Meaningful Social Interactions: "Everyone has a rogue uncle or an old-school classmate who holds strong or extreme views we disagree with — that's life — and the change meant you are more likely to come across their posts, too."

But Facebook is now in full-on crisis mode. The Facebook Files are shaping up to be the biggest problem for Facebook's public image since the height of the Cambridge Analytica days. (And given the near-constant run of scandals since then, that's a pretty high bar to clear.) Cambridge Analytica was an ultimately fairly minor thing, and yet it still haunts both Facebook and the tech industry as a whole. This one might be even bigger.

  • Facebook executives and the company's "Strategic Response" teams — which include Adam Mosseri, Nick Clegg, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg and others — have held a series of emergency meetings over the last few weeks, The New York Times reported. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have been publicly quiet on all things Facebook Files, but are reportedly heavily involved behind the scenes.
  • So far, the company's response to the reporting and leaks has been simple: downplay, downplay, downplay. But it seems publicly saying "our internal research isn't very good and doesn't really matter" isn't sitting well with some Facebook employees. And it may not be convincing regulators or the public, either.

There's a core disconnect within Facebook: The company seems either unwilling or unable (or both) to understand just how influential it really is. And even if it's true that most teens have positive experiences on Instagram, even if it's true that Facebook takes down millions of pieces of problematic content before users even notice, even if it's true that Facebook invests far more than its competitors in content moderation, there are still going to be vast numbers of users who experience the platform in all the wrong ways.

  • "The prevalence of hate speech on our platform is now down to about 0.05%," Clegg wrote yesterday. That's great! And it still means millions of hate-speech posts are flowing through the platform at any given time.
  • Facebook is big and powerful in unparalleled, unprecedented ways. And until it stops comparing itself to chairs and cars and phone companies, and starts reckoning with what it means to actually be Facebook, nothing's really going to change.

This is all still just getting started. Facebook is under antitrust scrutiny, faces lawsuits from a number of states, is picking (and losing) a privacy fight with Apple, is being investigated in the EU for multiple reasons and is under genuine threat from TikTok and elsewhere. Facebook has weathered a lot in the last few years, but this is starting to feel like a whole different kind of storm.

— David Pierce (email | twitter)

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

We've invested $13 billion in teams and technology over the last 5 years to enhance safety. It's working: In just the past few months, we took down 1.7 billion fake accounts to stop bad actors from doing harm. But there's more to do. We're working to help you connect safely.

Learn more

People Are Talking

Tim Sweeney said it's easy for Apple to make money from games when the company is not really making the games:

  • "Making games is hard, risky and requires investment. It's much more profitable to just put up a toll [booth] in front of the creative work of others, which is Apple's 'innovation' here."

Car companies shouldn't just point fingers at TSMC for the chip shortage, chair Mark Liu said:

  • "I told them, 'You are my customer's customer's customer. How could I [prioritize others] and not give you chips?'"
Donald Trump is suing to get back on Twitter, and thinks his ongoing ban could be a big problem:
  • "[Twitter] is threatening irreparable damage to the Republican Party's prospects in the 2022 and 2024 elections."

Strategist Amir Anvarzadeh doesn't think it's a great idea for SoftBank's Vision Fund to invest more with fewer people:

  • "Potential failure rates are bound to be higher, but you can imagine [Masayoshi] Son just throwing caution to the wind and playing the percentages."

Making Moves

GeekWire Summit begins today. Andy Jassy is expected to speak at the two-day event, which will be held via livestream and at a venue in downtown Seattle.

Frances Haugen will testify before the Senate tomorrow.

VMworld starts tomorrow. The global online event will cover topics like multicloud and app modernization, and includes a conversation with, err, Will Smith.

Windows 11 comes out tomorrow. The update will feature some cosmetic changes and a new Microsoft Store, among other things.

Nintendo Switch (OLED Model) will be released on Friday. It'll have a larger OLED screen and a lot of internal storage.

In Other News

  • Sheryl Sandberg's share of Facebook staff has fallen in recent years, according to another Facebook Files report. Of all the company's execs, Javier Olivan has reportedly had the biggest increase in people reporting to him.
  • Monzo withdrew its banking license application. It has been working on expanding in the U.S. for more than a year, but after conversations with regulators is now scaling back its ambitions stateside.
  • Google staffer David Brown is suing for alleged harassment at the company's Los Angeles offices based on his race and sexual orientation. The lawsuit claims his supervisor accounted for a lot of the behavior, which happened for several years.
  • The White House is planning a global cyber crime meeting this month. The U.S. is gathering officials from a bunch of countries to talk about issues like ransomware attacks and illegal use of crypto.
  • A couple companies want to go public, including Amazon- and Ford-backed EV maker Rivian, which filed its S-1 with the SEC, and cloud software company Informatica, which a source told Bloomberg hopes to be valued at $10 billion.
  • A South Korean internet service provider is suing Netflix because its hit show is apparently too popular. SK Broadband is asking Netflix to cover the costs from increased traffic and maintenance since the new show "Squid Game" was released.
  • Dan Durn is Adobe's new CFO. He's been the CFO at Applied Materials for a few years.

One More Thing

'Roger that, Microsoft'

Microsoft Teams wants to be better than Zoom, so it's adding a bunch of new features like the ability to transfer calls and detect spam. The thing is, Zoom already has these tools (although its spam tool is still in beta), so Microsoft added something you can't get on Zoom: a walkie-talkie.

To talk, you just push a button, like push-to-talk, but for the digital age. It's a little less coordinated than a Slack Huddle or Zoom call, given that you can talk to someone without notice. So it'll be fun to see how that plays out with your colleagues!

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

It's working: We lead the industry in stopping bad actors online. In the past few months, we took down:

  • 1.7B fake accounts
  • 3.8M drugs and firearms sales posts
  • 7.1M terrorism-related posts

Our work to reduce harmful content is never done. We're making our platforms safer.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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