Facebook has once again found itself trying to downplay and dismiss bad press as a result of bombshell whistleblower testimony, leaked documents, and recent reports on how its products harm users and foster misinformation.
On September 13, The Wall Street Journal released the first installments in the The Facebook Files, a nine-part series drawn from internal documents showing how its platforms have harmed teens, been ineffective in stopping the spread of vaccine misinformation, and struggled to rein in divisive content, among a host of other issues. The whistleblower behind these documents was later revealed to be Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook for nearly two years as a product manager on a team that was designated to counter election interference. Haugen testified in a Senate hearing on October 5, reiterating that during her time at the company, she saw a pattern of Facebook executives ignoring evidence of the harm being caused by their products.
In the weeks since the release of the Wall Street Journal’s reporting and the resulting Senate hearing, Facebook and its spokespeople have been on the defensive, desperately trying to salvage their company’s already tarnished reputation. Here are a few narratives Facebook and its spokespeople have pushed, misrepresenting the company’s history and obscuring the harms it’s caused.
Discrediting whistleblower Frances Haugen
Haugen, who worked at Facebook for two years, provided slides of Facebook’s research to back up her claims around the platform’s poor content moderation, incentivisation of sensational content, and lack of transparency. Her statements are also consistent with Media Matters' own research, in addition to the research of many other journalists and organizations.
Nevertheless, her former employer has repeatedly attacked her credibility on Twitter, led by Facebook Policy Communications Director Andy Stone:
On Sunday, October 10, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg made multiple television appearances, including on ABC’s This Week, in which he tried to write off Haugen’s statements, while making other dubious claims about Facebook’s practices:
Both Clegg and Instagram head Adam Mosseri have claimed that removing the content-ranking algorithm will increase the reach of harmful content instead of reducing it. While only Facebook knows the exact ways in which its algorithms function, several studies and reports have shown that Facebook’s platforms promote plenty of harmful content, and that they may not be all that effective in reducing it.
During his appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press, Clegg also refuted Haugen’s statement that certain protections Facebook put in place prior to the 2020 election were removed immediately after. Clegg claimed that an example of Facebook’s continued protections is that the platform has permanently stopped recommending political groups to users. However, reporting by The Markup in January and again in June showed that the company did not follow through on this action after it was initially promised by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in October 2020.
Facebook’s official statement, written by its Director of Policy Communications Lena Pietsch and posted to Stone’s Twitter, also directly undermined Haugen’s credibility:
Claiming that Facebook has been asking for regulation
Facebook has been boasting of its calls for internet regulation as another tactic to offload blame in the aftermath of the Wall Street Journal reports and Haugen’s statements. The platform has pushed the narrative that it has been calling for regulation for years but is also “not waiting on Congress" and has “made progress on issues like data portability, safety and security.” By doing so, Facebook is able to reinforce the idea that it is already going above and beyond in making its platforms safe and secure for users. However, it has been pointed out that the regulations that Facebook is calling for wouldn’t have a substantial impact on the platform.
On October 12, USA Today published an op-ed by Clegg, in which he laid out how Facebook has been “advocating for new rules for several years.” He beat the same drum during his appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week on October 10.
As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) discussed in the Senate hearing, tech lobbyists and the money they spend have been an impediment to passing legislation around these issues. She pointed out how this has impacted the antitrust subcommittee’s ability to pass legislation around consolidation, which has allowed companies like Facebook to act like “bullies in the neighborhood, buy out the companies that maybe could have competed with them, and added the bells and whistles.” (Additionally, Facebook has spent over $9.5 million on federal lobbying in just the first half of this year, calling into question the sincerity behind its public support of greater internet regulation.)
Ultimately, the regulations Facebook claims that it has been gunning so hard for are not those that would make the most impact. They are predominantly measures that the company is already taking and are centered primarily around content, not advertising -- meaning they wouldn’t impact its bottom line. On its website, Facebook identifies the regulations it deems the most necessary, and while these do include support of regulations around political advertisements, it has been reported that the company has simultaneously lobbied against passing these similar acts.
Claiming that Facebook works hard to address the issues with its platform
One of the most common themes in Facebook’s current PR blitz is an attempt to emphasize that it is working very hard and doing the best it can to address the issues brought to light by Haugen and The Wall Street Journal. These claims have been debunked by numerous experts who continually make recommendations on how Facebook could address the harm its platform causes -- recommendations that the company ignores. This framing from Facebook seem to be geared toward deflecting responsibility from the platform for the harm it has caused without making real commitments -- a tactic frequently used by Facebook, as we saw in the Senate hearing on September 30.
Despite these claims about all the hard work Facebook has put into addressing the issues with its platforms, it does nothing to address the core flaws such as its business model, which leads to the prioritization of user engagement over user safety.
On October 8, Stone retweeted a lengthy Twitter thread by David Gillis, director of product design, reiterating the same sentiment -- that Facebook is working hard and that we should be giving it more credit:
Additionally, as a part of his PR media tour on October 10, Clegg made many similar statements implying that Facebook is doing the best it can to address very tricky issues -- which, let us not forget, it has also caused:
Clegg’s last point reinforces the perception that Facebook is working to meet demands from its users on both sides of the political aisle, and it implies that these demands are equally valid. Sure, the right may claim that conservative voices are being censored, but Media Matters' research and other reporting has consistently shown that not only is conservative content not censored on Facebook, it often gets greater reach than left-leaning content.
Claiming The Wall Street Journal misrepresented Facebook’s research
Facebook spokespeople have been repeating the claim that The Wall Street Journal mischaracterized the leaked Facebook internal research. This sentiment is both frustrating and unsurprising, considering Facebook has a record of carefully curating what information it chooses to release to the public.
In a Twitter thread on September 18, Clegg said that while Facebook should be held accountable, The Wall Street Journal articles “contains deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do & confers egregiously false motives to our leadership & employees. Its central allegation is just plain false: that we systematically & willfully ignore research that is inconvenient.”
Stone made similar comments on Twitter:
The company did eventually provide the documents -- with “its own running commentary” -- about its findings on Instagram’s impacts on teens. But many lawmakers and experts disagree with Facebook’s conclusion that its findings don't demonstrate a significant negative impact. Instagram itself announced that it will be pausing development of Instagram Kids, following the initial Wall Street Journal reporting.
On October 5, Zuckerberg himself addressed the whistleblower statements in a Facebook post, which hit on many of the narratives already discussed, claiming that the statements Haugen made were “illogical,” that Facebook needs and wants regulation, and that the research was largely mischaracterized by The Wall Street Journal.
Pushing generally positive PR about FB
Throughout the bad news cycle, Facebook has taken the tried-and-true approach of simply plowing on by pushing positive stories about the company in front of its users.
Several high-level employees at Facebook tweeted out stories about the positive impact Facebook is having around the world.
Multiple official Facebook accounts also shared positive messages about the company.
Facebook has also continued to run paid ads on its own platform that push more good press in front of its users.
While Facebook continues to frantically spin the narrative and push a positive image, the reality is the company has allowed its platform to foster division and instability for years by failing to adequately address issues such as hate speech, violence, election misinformation, COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, and many more.
During the company’s earlier days, its team operated under Zuckerberg’s motto: “Move fast and break things.” While it has since distanced itself from the phrase, it seems that Facebook is incapable of taking the desperately needed step of slowing down and fixing things, and it would prefer to focus its energy on its public image rather than the ways its platform is harming the public.