Column: The Facebook Papers: Did they lose their moral ground?


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cullen Davis, Senior Staff Reporter/Writer

Internal documents obtained by former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen have now become public, exposing the detrimental acts of the trillion-dollar company. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook Inc., has been the central core of social media for over two decades, but now he faces a new challenge, the United States government. 

A unique collaboration of 17 news organizations, including The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have worked together to gain access to thousands of pages of internal company documents obtained by Haugen, a former Facebook product manager. In what can be described as chaos, The Washington Post was quoted saying, “Facebook the company is losing control of Facebook the product.”

The Facebook Papers follow similar reporting from The Wall Street Journal and Haugen’s Oct. 5 Capitol Hill testimony. The documents show how Facebook undermined democratic norms. Hypocrisy and a hunger for power and market domination was the common theme and attitude. Company dismissal of free speech and events of the Jan. 6 United States Capitol attack proved to be the breaking point. A Facebook employee was quoted saying, “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time, and we should not be surprised it is now out of control.” Haugen filed a series of disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Committee and to Congress that has now become public. 

The documents expose an “unbelievable” volume of staffers that are at odds with the way Facebook and Zuckerberg have been conducting the company. Dangers posed by the platform amplified extremism and misinformation that has incited violence and encouraged political polarization. 

Measures to suppress hateful and deceptive content are lifted after the U.S. Presidential Election of 2020 as pro-Trump groups grow large in number, confronting the false claims of a fraudulent election. A dummy test in India is flooded with violent anti-Muslim propaganda that remained visible for weeks on the real account of a frightened Muslim college student. An accumulation of documents reveals Facebook has privately and meticulously tracked real-world harms heightened by its platform, ignored the warnings of its employees, and exposed communities around the world to a stockpile of dangerous content.

Flashback to January and the events of the U.S Capitol attack, and people will learn Facebook had a bigger hand in that situation than many people know.  The decision to crack down on Trump came too little, too late. For months Trump incited the riot, in plain sight on Facebook, “how are we expected to ignore, when leadership overrides research-based policy to better serve the people like the groups inciting the violence,” a Facebook employee said. Facebook did not have a sufficient and effective game plan for “harmful non-violating narratives” that toed the line between misinformation and free speech. After the election, Facebook dialed down on many of the measures to protect U.S. users, including a ban on the main Stop the Steal group that did not apply to the many look-alike groups that popped up later, in what Facebook later concluded was a “coordinated” campaign. By the time Facebook tried to reimpose their defense readiness condition (DEFCON) measures, a pro-Trump mob was already storming the U.S. Capitol. 

The documents also tell how Facebook was caught off guard by COVID-19 vaccine misinformation in the comment section. President Joe Biden even accused Facebook of “killing people” by letting anti-vax sentiments run-riot. Allegations state Facebook that Facebook prioritized profit over safety and hid its research from investors and the public, “we’re not a neutral entity,” a Facebook employee said.

Documents from earlier also expose a near fallout with Apple, Inc., from October 2019. After being tipped by BBC News Arabic, Apple threatened to remove Facebook and Instagram from iOS over concerns the platform was being used as a tool to trade and sell maids in the Mideast. Although the situation resolved itself, this was an example of Zuckerberg’s public statements being at odds with the internal Facebook findings. The questionable actions of Zuckerberg would continue to come up in the Facebook Papers over his action with foreign nations. Zuckerberg personally intervened to ensure Facebook would comply with the dictatorial Vietnam law, agreeing to moderate more aggressive anti-state content. Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress that Facebook removes 94% of hate speech it finds before humans report it. Internal documents revealed Facebook was only removing less than 5% of all hate speech.

Facebook has abandoned or delayed initiatives to reduce misinformation and radicalization amid its push for increased user engagement and attention for corporate profits. Facebook has dismissed the concerns of its employees. They argue staffers who have used their voice and raised attention are simply “enjoying Facebook’s very open culture,” in which people are encouraged to share their opinions. This allows Facebook to claim transparency while ignoring the high number of complaints, “Facebook operates with a moral compass,” an employee said.

The current outlook toward Facebook is not a positive one, with the recent documents being available to the public. Everyone is unsure what steps or actions will be toward the company or Zuckerberg, but it is safe to say action and reception will be quick. As a CEO of a trillion-dollar company that gives millions access to public speech, a line must be drawn to protect the safety, interests and information of individuals during these recent times. Civil unrest, pandemics, and foreign policies all merge together on social media, and without proper control, further disaster is looming.