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The Facebook Papers have the potential to be the company's most serious crisis in its history



In recent years, Facebook has been the target of whistleblowers, public relations firestorms, and congressional investigations. However, it is now confronted with a combination of all three in what could be the most intense and widespread crisis the company has experienced in its 17-year history.


"The Facebook Papers" are a series of stories being published on Friday by a group of 17 news organizations in the United States that are based on hundreds of internal company documents that have been included in SEC filings and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's legal counsel. The redacted versions of the documents that were sent to Congress were reviewed by the consortium, which included CNN.


Stories about organized groups on Facebook (FB) sowing discord and violence, most recently on January 6, are among CNN's coverage topics. Other stories include Facebook's difficulties moderating content in some non-English-speaking countries and how human traffickers have taken advantage of its platforms.


The reports from CNN and the other consortium members come after the company has been subjected to intense scrutiny for more than a month. Previously, The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories based on Haugen's leak of tens of thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents, which were published in part by The Washington Post. (In fact, many of the documents produced by the consortium are based on the same ones.)


The publication of the "Facebook Files" by the Wall Street Journal, which raised concerns about Instagram's impact on teen girls and other issues, prompted a Senate subcommittee hearing with Facebook's global safety chief, Antigone Davis, to discuss the issue. "Facebook's products harm children, incite division, and erode our democracy," Haugen stated during his testimony before the Senate subcommittee.


According to current indications, Facebook's difficulties will continue indefinitely. Members of the subcommittee have requested testimony from Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, on the company's business practices. In addition, on Friday, another former Facebook employee filed an anonymous complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, making allegations that are similar to those made by Haugen.


Facebook has received criticism in the past for issues such as data privacy, content moderation, and competitor policies, among other things. Its approach to combating hate speech and misinformation, as well as its management of international growth and the protection of younger users on its platform, are all addressed in the massive archive of documents and the numerous stories that will undoubtedly emerge from it. Its ability to accurately measure the size of its massive audience is another concern and issue that will be addressed.


It all raises an uncomfortable question for the social media giant: Is the company equipped to deal with the real-world harm that could be caused by its staggeringly large platforms, or has the company become too large to fail?


Facebook attempts to turn the page


Facebook, on the other hand, has made numerous attempts to discredit Haugen, claiming that her testimony and the documents she provided mischaracterize the company's actions and efforts.


'A false premise is at the heart of these stories,' according to a Facebook spokesperson who spoke with CNN. Despite the fact that we are a business and that profit is necessary, the notion that we do so at the expense of people's safety or well-being is misguided and misunderstands our commercial interests."


As recently as last week, Facebook's Vice President of Communications, John Pinette, described the Facebook Papers as a "curated selection from millions of documents on Facebook" that "can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us" and that "can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us." Even that response, however, is telling --— if Facebook has additional documents that would provide a more complete picture, why isn't it releasing those documents as well? In her Senate testimony, Davis stated that Facebook is "looking into ways to make additional research available to the public."


Instead, as the wave of negative press coverage continues, Facebook is reportedly planning to rebrand itself under a new name as soon as this week, according to reports. The company previously declined to comment on this report.) It appears that the company is making a conscious effort to turn the page, but a fresh coat of paint will not be enough to address the underlying issues detailed in the documents — only Facebook, or whatever it will be renamed, will be able to address them.


Consider a September 16 Journal report that detailed internal Facebook research into a violent Mexican drug cartel known as the Cartél Jalisco Nueva Generación, which was responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. The cartel was allegedly using the platform to distribute violent content and recruit new members under the moniker "CJNG," despite the fact that it had been designated as a "Dangerous Individuals and Organizations" whose content should be removed by the company's internal policy enforcement team. At the time, Facebook told the Wall Street Journal that it was investing in artificial intelligence to strengthen its enforcement against such groups.


Although the Journal reported on the group's activities last month, CNN discovered disturbing content associated with the group on Instagram last week, including photos of guns as well as photo and video posts depicting people who appear to have been shot or beheaded. After CNN inquired about the posts, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed that several videos that CNN had flagged had been removed for violating the company's policies, and that at least one post had been updated to include a cautionary message.


It is believed that Facebook's inability to address such issues is partially due to the company's preference for profit over societal good, as well as the fact that the company is unable to put out all of its fires at the same time.


According to Haugen, during a briefing with the consortium "Facebook Papers" last week, "Facebook is extremely understaffed... This is because a lot of technologists look at what Facebook has done and their unwillingness to accept responsibility, and they simply aren't willing to work there." They must, as a result, make extremely deliberate decisions about what gets accomplished and what does not.


According to a Facebook spokesperson, the company has invested a total of $13 billion since 2016 to improve the security of its platforms and services to users. The company generated annual revenue of more than $85 billion and profit of more than $29 billion last year, in comparison. Facebook also employs "40,000 people to ensure that the platform's safety and security is maintained, including 15,000 people who review content in more than 70 languages and work in over 20 locations around the world to support our community," according to a spokesperson.


According to the spokesperson, "we have also taken down over 150 networks that have attempted to manipulate public debate since 2017, with the majority of these networks originating in or focusing on countries other than the United States." In the United States, we prosecute abuse with the same zeal as we do in the United Kingdom, according to our track record.


In spite of this, the documents indicate that Facebook has a great deal more work to do in order to address the numerous harms detailed in the documents, in addition to the unintended consequences of Facebook's unprecedented reach and integration into our daily lives.


Uncertainty regarding the future


The company, on the other hand, appears to be rapidly losing trust, not only with some of its users and regulators, but also with some of its own employees.


In a number of internal documents, Facebook employees express concern about the company's actions, including a December 2020 internal message about attrition on the company's integrity team, which includes the statement "Our recent Pulse results show confidence in leadership has declined across the company." The use of pulse surveys by companies to gauge employee sentiment on specific topics is commonplace.


According to Haugen, the internal post was written after Facebook's Civic Integrity team was disbanded following the 2016 Presidential election and its employees were assigned to other roles within the company. The move was made "so that the incredible work pioneered by [the team] for elections could be applied even further... their work continues to this day," according to Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen.


Facebook's independent oversight board charged the company on Thursday with not being "fully transparent" about the details of its Cross-Check program, which reportedly exempted millions of VIP users from the social media platform's standard content moderation rules. The company "asked the board for input on our Cross-Check system," according to a Facebook spokesperson, and "we will work to be more transparent in our future explanations to them."


The good news for Facebook is that Haugen and her team have no plans to shut down or dismantle the company, which is a welcome development. When asked why she was testifying before the Senate, Haugen stated repeatedly that she was there because she believes in Facebook's potential for good, assuming the company can address its serious problems. Haugen has even stated that she would be willing to return to work for Facebook if the opportunity presented itself. She suggested that Congress allow the company to "declare moral bankruptcy," and that they should work together to "figure out how to fix these things," according to the New York Times.


Haugen's strategic legal adviser, Lawrence Lessig, told CNN that "what struck me most as I read these documents was how extraordinary the company is." Lessig is a Harvard Law School professor who also serves as the company's strategic legal adviser. "Every department in the company is filled with Frances Haugens... all of whom are simply attempting to do their jobs properly. This group is devoted to making Facebook the safest, most useful, and most effective communication platform possible."


As a result of current and future whistleblower revelations, it is unclear how much Facebook will change, particularly if its advertising-fueled business continues unabated as it has done so far. Will it be willing to accept the level of transparency and cooperation demanded by Haugen, regulators, and other stakeholders? Or will it simply carry on as usual under a new moniker, as it has done for years?

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