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Some thoughts on where things go from here for Facebook
It’s been one month since the Wall Street Journal dropped the first of its “Facebook Files” - a series of articles based on thousands of documents from a whistleblower now known as Frances Haugen - a former civic integrity employee. Since then, it has been a whirlwind of other stories, eight SEC filings, three Congressional hearings, and two outages of Facebook’s apps.
Not since Cambridge Analytica has the company faced such a controversy. This one is different because it came from a former employee who didn’t just have complaints; she brought documents. This has given her more credibility and proof to back up what she is saying. Questions around the documents also include the context of why they were created, mixed feelings inside the company and by former employees whose work was leaked without their permission, and why the company disbanded the civic integrity team that Frances was on.
Thus, in the words of the great President Josiah Bartlet, I thought it was time to ask, “What’s Next?”
Right now, I would say we are in the eye of this storm. Jeff Horwitz told Brian Stelter last week that there are more stories to drop. Moreover, Haugen will be testifying in the U.K. on October 25, speaking at the Web Summit on November 3, and the European Parliament on November 8. The Facebook Oversight Board has also asked her to talk to them on Facebook’s XCheck (pronounced cross-check) system.
Facebook right now is reportedly going through a reputational review of its upcoming products and launches. There is the Election Commission that they are rumored to be working on, and I think they’ll save that announcement should a story about how Facebook prepared for the 2020 election drop. Haugen talked about that in her podcast with the Wall Street Journal, so I assume one might be coming. I also believe that Mark will end up having to testify to the U.S. Congress. I don’t see how he avoids doing so based on the furor these documents and his response thus far have caused. Finally, UnidosUS announced it was giving back money Facebook had given them for their work, and there is the potential that we will see more organizations do the same if the pressure remains.
Moreover, there is the question of the documents themselves and if they get released to the public. I think there is a high likelihood of this once they can be adequately retracted of any names. Based on the reporting thus far, the SEC filings and the titles of the documents they gave in the appendix below are my predictions of some stories we might yet see.
Facebook’s preparedness for 2020: Frances spoke of a document in the WSJ podcast about how prepared the company was for 2020, and the picture was grim. Haugen said:
“They did a lockdown for the 2020 election. They had done basically a war game for the 2020 election saying, "What could go off the rails?" They went and assessed what were all the vulnerabilities for Facebook, and they made a grid. Imagine across the top you have a column for Facebook; you have a column for Messenger; you have a column for Instagram, WhatsApp, ads. And in the rows they picked the ten biggest threats and then they colored in those squares.
Kate Linebaugh: The top 10 threats included things like hate speech, misinformation, harassment, impersonation, and voter suppression.
Frances Haugen: Maybe across the squares, there's 70 squares, 60 squares. There were so many red squares. The entire thing was either red or yellow. There's no green. There are so many red squares they had to have two colors of red to differentiate between the red ones that they couldn't address during lockdown and the ones they were going to focus on during lockdown. And at that point, I was like, ‘Oh my God, we're a year out from the election and this is how bad it is? This is a problem.’”
It’s a story of simply way too many things to do and not nearly enough time to get them all done. This will raise questions about Facebook’s investment and decision-making choices.
Facebook and January 6: I expect the January 6th commission to talk to Haugen (if they haven’t already) and to potentially subpoena more documents and testimony around Facebook’s role in amplifying the events of January 6. One nuance to point out in this discussion is that many of the questions center around how the algorithms amplified the content. However, this memo leaked from the company about the Stop the Steal activity on Facebook is about coordinated authentic behavior and how the organizers used various growth tactics and skirting the lines for a violation to grow. Those are two very different things, and the focus should be on what policies Facebook and other platforms should have around this type of organizing (and when they determine it might be dangerous or not).
India: Ahead of the 2019 Indian elections, Facebook grappled with various issues, including hate speech by some political figures and coordinated inauthentic behavior. India comes up in some of the documents given to the SEC and the WSJ has written about some of this before so there’s the potential for more.
Facebook’s approach outside the U.S.: Between Haugen’s testimony and documents and information from Sophie Zang - an earlier FB whistleblower - many questions remain about how Facebook prioritizes and resources work outside of the United States. I expect policymakers in the UK and Europe to focus on this a lot and international civil society groups. I am also very concerned about how much Facebook and other platforms will do outside the US - especially as we start to head into three years of elections, including an unprecedented year in 2024.
One other thing to note as we discuss how a company like Facebook staffs up internationally. There’s first the operations team - these are the people that review content. That’s the 30,000 safety, and security people number the company throws around all the time. The other is the capacity of the product teams to build bespoke classifiers and tools to find the content in the first place. This is where Facebook could only really focus on a few languages and countries. Then there are the 80 fact-checking partners that cover 60 languages. Finally, there will be various policy, partnerships, sales, and other teams in those countries.
Civic Integrity and Crowdtangle teams: Haugen said in her testimony that the final straw was when the civic integrity team was disbanded in December 2020. Questions around changes to Crowdtangle exist as well. TIME’s cover story for this week covers the civic integrity team somewhat in detail, as did the Washington Post and New York Times. I expect more questions to come about how Facebook staffs and structures teams around these problems.
Tech Whistleblowers: Somewhat along the same line as the stories above, there is a lot of speculation on if other whistleblowers will come forward. Not just at Facebook but across tech in general. Ifeoma Ozoma has been doing fantastic work not only building a guidebook for whistleblowers but also got a bill passed in California to give tech workers more protections when speaking out.
Regulation: Lots of questions are swirling on if regulation is even possible. While I think it’s unlikely in the United States, Europe has signaled to require more transparency around political ads. It is trying to finalize the content for the Digital Services and Digital Marketing Acts by November 8th - though recent reporting says that will likely slip. Moreover, we see some shift in conversation not just to regulate content ala Section 230, but instead regulate the algorithms and how platforms amplify content.
Cross-Check: I expect this to pop back up in the news from time to time as the Oversight Board considers the request from Facebook for guidance on this practice. For context, there are two types of cross-checking at the company. One is a secondary set of checks for high-profile accounts before any action is taken. Another is where the product teams gave blanket exemptions to these people from enforcement. The latter is much more problematic and is a question of capacity and policy.
Research/Transparency/Privacy: This debate ran rampant before the whistleblower and only gained more steam in the aftermath. Researchers and policymakers will keep pushing for more access. Facebook will keep saying they will once they are given some guidance/protections around the privacy issues of releasing such data.
Social media and Kids: Expect more questions, research, and hearings with other platforms about the creation and use of social media by kids. This wasn’t an area I worked on, so I have less familiarity with this issue.
Beyond these topics, there is a lot more in the documents that should get attention but might get buried given everything else. This includes questions about what platforms should do around repeat offenders, how Facebook takes political, partner, and advertiser considerations into account when making decisions, and whether the content to different groups of people should be treated differently (called narrowcast misinfo in the docs). I also expect political and issue ads to come up again as the platforms make announcements (or are pressured to make announcements) about plans for the midterms.
I may have missed some things, and so if there are other topics and questions you have, please feel free to share, and I’m happy to dig into those.
Shoutout to the Crowdtangle team
Last week I talked about how special my team and the civic integrity teams were. I should have put Crowdtangle into that bucket as well. Earlier this year, Facebook broke up Crowdtangle, and last week the founder - Brandon Silverman - left Facebook. I first worked with this team during the 2016 election when I came to them with an idea about some dashboards for our presences at the conventions. They stepped up to the challenge, and I was so happy when Facebook purchased them. I’m sad to see the team no longer together, but I can’t wait to see what Brandon and they all do in the future.
What I’m Reading
Facebook released a 12-page list of all the various integrity efforts they’ve done over the years. I’m proud to have been a part of some of this work.
Richard Allan - a former Facebook colleague and manager - has an excellent podcast on regulating tech. Last week they took a look at various options for managing content decisions.
Draft regulations the EU is considering around political ads leaked to Politico. If passed, it would require the platforms to provide the targeting data political advertisers use. The EU was also hoping to finalize language for the Digital Services and Digital Marketing Acts by November 8, but it looks like that deadline might slip.
On the Great Battlefield Podcast, Nathaniel Pearlman and I got into all the hard questions.
Twitter released a whitepaper with its regulatory principles around protecting the open internet.
Attention West Wing fans. When searching for an image for this week, I stumbled on this site with all sorts of West Wing themed stickers. I put in an order.
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