Policy

‘The Eye of Sauron is looking elsewhere’: How Twitter and Google really feel about Facebook’s troubles

From dumping bad news to cleaning up their own products, Facebook's rivals tend to like when lawmakers focus on their competitor, but some feel there's also real risk to them in Washington's anger.

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The backlash against Facebook could spill over and hurt other tech companies.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

For an entire week now, Facebook has dominated nearly every headline — and Twitter and Google are probably enjoying it.

Washington's frustration with Facebook — now Meta, apparently — is a near constant in tech policy, but policymakers' ire at the company has grown in recent weeks thanks to the extensive documents still being made public. Tech companies that aren't Facebook, meanwhile, often feel more than a smidge of schadenfreude seeing a competitor's difficulties, even as they try to avoid scrutiny of their own. Still, rival services also worry that the intensified fury of lawmakers and regulators may well turn on them.

"If you're at a tech company that has had its turn in the barrel, you're often grateful that someone else is in the barrel," said Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy director. "I think it is very tempting for tech company lobbyists to say, 'Thank God someone else is in the spotlight.'"

The Facebook Papers have greatly brightened that very spotlight. The documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen launched a blockbuster series of reports across several media outlets, portraying the company as putting profits over safety, worsening the mental health of depressed teens and facilitating international political division and human trafficking, among many, many other concerns.

Despite perennial congressional gridlock, lawmakers say they're furious about the mounting revelations, and agencies are reportedly investigating.

Nu Wexler — who has worked as a spokesman for Twitter, Google and Facebook itself — said that while going through a tough news cycle like the one Facebook is now enduring, he'd wake up to messages from European reporters and go to sleep with ones from Asia-based journalists still coming in. All this while his bosses coordinated their response through every Facebook tool, occasionally including personal Messenger accounts.

The other companies, though, have used the scrambling of those at Facebook to their own communications advantage.

"There's no better time to dump bad tech news than during a Facebook news cycle or earnings call," Wexler said with a laugh.

He added that peer companies do sometimes use the time that Facebook spends in the spotlight to try to mitigate concerns that would apply to them as well, because "some of the issues Facebook is confronting, like polarization or misinformation, are tech industry problems or larger societal problems."

Another former Twitter official, who asked not to be named discussing internal conversations, said the scrutiny on Facebook can even benefit smaller social media platforms' product teams as they develop similar offerings to those that got Facebook in trouble.

"It's an opportunity to say, 'Look at how a company like Facebook or Google either handled this poorly or well three years ago,'" the ex-Twitter employee said, giving the example of Facebook's maligned efforts around promoting voting.

The tendency of the biggest players to hire law and PR firms, and otherwise "gobble up the influence and the resources," made smaller companies feel like Facebook deserved the heat, they added.

"You also bear the responsibility of being upfront on things," they said. "Often, we were happy for them to do so."

While the latest Facebook furor follows extensive and continuing media reports, Kovacevich, the former Google employee, admitted the companies also sometimes try to foster such moments by urging elected officials and regulators to focus on competitors, including Facebook.

Kovacevich, who is now CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a tech trade association that counts Facebook as a "corporate partner," said he urges companies to "be careful in fanning the flames or taking too much delight in your competitors' pain," because the result can be regulation that goes far beyond Facebook in its effect.

In fact, Facebook's latest crisis recently led to a hearing this week with YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat, and some lawmakers are pushing for increased regulation to protect kids online.

It's an echo, of sorts: Perhaps the most stinging loss for the tech industry in recent years was an amendment to a legal provision known as Section 230 that attempted to curb online sex trafficking. The law made all kinds of tech companies face more liability for user content. President Trump signed it in 2018, one day after Mark Zuckerberg's first congressional testimony, which unofficially launched the techlash in Washington.

Now, as Facebook contends with Washington's anger, the company is pushing for further changes to Section 230. The move has infuriated other companies that rely on the provision to host and moderate a wide range of content far beyond trafficking.

"Facebook is causing all sorts of conflicts and difficulties with its 230 shenanigans," said a tech policy expert who has worked closely with several companies.

Facebook's public difficulties often prompt other companies to say, "great, the Eye of Sauron is looking elsewhere," the person said, adding: "On the other [hand], their continued malfeasance and failure to have any control of their products is causing reputational harm to the entire industry."

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