In recent years, Facebook has faced whistleblowers, public relations firestorms, and Congressional investigations. However, it is now facing a combination of all three at the same time in what could be the most intense and wide-ranging crisis in the company’s 17-year history.
On Friday, a group of 17 US news organizations began publishing a series of stories titled “The Facebook Papers” that are based on a trove of hundreds of internal company documents that were included in SEC disclosures and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel.
The publication of the Journal’s “Facebook Files,” which raised concerns about the impact of Instagram on teen girls, among other issues, prompted a Senate subcommittee hearing with Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety. Haugen then testified before the Senate subcommittee, stating that “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
Facebook’s problems appear to have no end in sight. Members of the subcommittee have requested that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear before them. On Friday, another former Facebook employee filed an SEC complaint against the company, alleging allegations similar to Haugen’s.
Facebook has previously dealt with scandals involving its approach to data privacy, content moderation, and competitors. However, the vast trove of documents, and the many stories that will undoubtedly emerge from it, address concerns and problems in seemingly every aspect of its business: its approach to combating hate speech and misinformation, managing international growth, protecting younger users on its platform, and even its ability to accurately measure the size of its massive audience.
For its part, Facebook has repeatedly attempted to discredit Haugen, claiming that her testimony and reports on the documents mischaracterize its actions and efforts.
Instead, as the wave of critical coverage continues, Facebook is reportedly planning to rebrand itself under a new name as early as this week. The move appears to be an attempt to turn the page, but a fresh coat of paint won’t address the underlying issues outlined in the documents — only Facebook, or whatever it will soon be called, can do that.
According to Haugen, Facebook’s failure to address such issues is due in part to the company’s preference for profit over societal good, and in some cases, the company’s inability to put out multiple fires at once. According to a company spokesperson, Facebook has invested a total of $13 billion since 2016 to improve the safety of its platforms. According to the spokesperson, Facebook has “40,000 people working on the safety and security of our platform, including 15,000 people who review content in more than 70 languages and work in more than 20 locations around the world to support our community.”
Nonetheless, the documents suggest that Facebook has a lot more work to do to eliminate all of the many harms outlined in the documents, as well as address the unintended consequences of its unprecedented reach and integration into our daily lives.
The internal post came after Facebook’s Civic Integrity team was disbanded following the Presidential election and its employees were assigned to other roles within the company, a move that Haugen criticized but that Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen explained was done “so that the incredible work pioneered [by the team] for elections could be applied even further… their work continues to this day.”
On Thursday, Facebook’s independent oversight board accused the company of not being “fully forthcoming” about the details of its Cross-Check program, which allegedly exempted millions of VIP users from the social media platform’s normal content moderation rules.
The good news for Facebook is that Haugen and her team do not intend to shut down or dismantle the company. During her Senate testimony, Haugen repeatedly told lawmakers that she was there because she believes in Facebook’s ability to do good if it can address its serious issues. Haugen even stated that if given the opportunity, she would return to work for Facebook. She proposed that Congress allow the company to “declare moral bankruptcy so that we can figure out how to fix these things together.”