Policy

It’s Frances Haugen’s world. We’re all just living in it.

With the release of the Facebook Papers, Haugen holds Facebook's future in her hands.

Frances Haugen

Haugen's decision to open the trove of documents up to outlets beyond the Journal has sparked a feeding frenzy.

Photo: Frances Haugen

Facebook knows a thing or two about optimizing content for outrage. As it turns out, so does Frances Haugen.

Or at least, the heavyweight team of media and political operatives helping manage the rollout of her massive trove of internal documents seems to have learned the lesson well. Because the document dump known as the Facebook Papers, published the same day as Facebook's earnings call with investors and the same week as the conference where it plans to lay out its future as a metaverse company, wasn't just designed for mass awareness.

It was designed for mass destruction.

After nearly two months of methodical and eye-opening revelations published in The Wall Street Journal's Facebook Files series, the floodgates opened Monday, and suddenly, nearly every major news outlet is saturated with stories about Facebook's failures.

While the details contained in each of the dozens of stories often overlap, together they paint an overwhelming picture of a company whose employees are all but beating down their bosses' doors, armed with charts and graphs that calculate the harm the company is causing — or at least, not preventing. And when they go unheard, the stories show a company whose employees have repeatedly quit in blazes of glory, posting burn-it-all-down farewell posts on their way out.

It's a catastrophe for Facebook that can only be compared to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But where that uproar was based on external whistleblowers and was laser-focused on how Facebook protects this amorphous thing called personal data, the Facebook Papers weaponize the company's own words against it. And because of the sheer scope of the leak, there's a little something in it for everyone.

If it's evidence of Facebook stoking racial animus in the U.S. you seek, look no further than this piece on the internal war over Breitbart's position as a news partner in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. If you're worried about Facebook's impact on other countries, here's a story on how Mark Zuckerberg caved to the Vietnamese government's efforts to stifle dissidents. And here's another about an internal test that found Facebook was leading users in India to graphic violence. "I've seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I've seen in my entire life total," a Facebook researcher wrote in one internal report.

If you're an investor or have money in Facebook, there's a story for you too, about Facebook's internal reports on waning growth with young people, which Bloomberg argues left investors "in the dark."

You get the picture. And it's not over yet. As more documents are released, there will undoubtedly be more stories to come.

For the media, Haugen's decision to open the trove of documents up to outlets beyond the Journal has sparked a feeding frenzy. It's no longer just the Journal's story to envy; the scoops are now free for the taking if only reporters have the wherewithal and enough caffeine to scour the stockpile. And that means that until the barrels are emptied, Facebook news will be unavoidable for anyone who turns on the television or picks up a paper, or — let's be real — a phone.

Facebook won't have a say in any of it. That's another difference between this and the Cambridge Analytica debacle: Where reporters in 2018 relied on Facebook to tell them just how much data had been misappropriated, this time around, the story is out of Facebook's hands.

For years, the company has divvied out news on its own terms — the same kind of terms around timing and citation it now criticizes reporters for accepting from Haugen. The company has been strategic with the internal metrics it shares in its quarterly transparency reports, which are both more robust than the rest of the industry and yet still incomplete. In those reports, Facebook touts the fact that AI removes the vast majority of the hate speech it sees, all the while banking on the fact that no one knows just how much hate speech it doesn't see, and therefore, doesn't remove. At least, no one outside of Facebook, that is.

Now, it's Haugen doing the divvying and Haugen deciding what metrics matter. With so many closely held internal findings out in the open, it's hard to imagine any amount of spin that Facebook could put out to counter the narrative she and her documents have created — and that more than a dozen newsrooms and some of their best reporters have spent the last few weeks corroborating.

Which brings us back to the timing. The Facebook Papers themselves are part of disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Frances Haugen's legal counsel. Through her complaint, Haugen hopes to convince the SEC that devastating damage to Facebook's reputation could equal devastating damage to its financial prospects.

By unleashing the Facebook Papers the same day as Facebook's earnings and the same week as its big metaverse fête, Haugen has a chance to prove if she's right.

A version of this story will appear in tomorrow's Source Code newsletter. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

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