The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Apologies were once staples after Facebook scandals. Now the company offers defiance.

Executives have attempted to undermine the credibility of a whistleblower who will testify in Congress.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

After four years of almost continuous scandal, Facebook is handling its latest controversy over political polarization and the toxic effects of social media in a much more defiant way than before, say current and former employees, including executives who shaped past responses.

Gone is the familiar script in which chief executive Mark Zuckerberg issues a formal apology — sometimes in long blogs on his personal Facebook page or over live-streamed video for a hearing before Congress — then takes responsibility and promises changes from the company.

In its place, the company has deployed a slate of executives to mount a public defense while quibbling with the details of allegations from Frances Haugen, the former project manager who left Facebook with thousands of documents. Those documents detail company research into how it spreads hate, incites violence, and, through its Instagram subsidiary, contributes to teenage girls’ negative body images and suicidal thoughts.

Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen on Oct. 3 revealed herself as the source of thousands of pages of leaked internal company data on "60 Minutes." (Video: The Washington Post)

Haugen, who revealed her identity in an interview Sunday, has brought a formal whistleblower complaint against the company with the Securities and Exchange Commission and will testify Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

“They’ve moved away from talking about responsibility and an apologetic stance to one that is much more aggressive, defensive and dismissive of the whistleblower’s claims,” said Brian Boland, a former vice president who resigned last year over concerns of accelerating polarization.

“When our work is being mischaracterized, we’re not going to apologize. We’re going to defend our record,” said Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds. The defenses are part of a broader strategy to fight mounting woes, including potential antitrust legislation in the United States, the sprawling antitrust case brought by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and impending laws in Europe that could significantly hurt the company’s business. On Monday, the company asked a federal judge to dismiss the FTC case while it contended with another crisis during a prolonged outage across all its apps, which include WhatsApp and Instagram.

Fueling the new approach, say the former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive company matters, is a desire by Zuckerberg to distance himself from the number of problems facing the social network as he focuses on virtual reality and his other ambitions to make Facebook a dominant player in hardware production.

The former employees say senior executives have grown weary of their own repeated public apologies and have come to believe the company needs to claim more credit for what it has done, much as a political campaign would. Others said that the company was only responding in kind to attacks from all sides, including leakers making incomplete assertions.

Taking the lead on the new approach has been Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister who is now vice president for communications and policy for Facebook. In a memo to employees Friday, he suggested that there was something about the United States in particular that causes polarization, as opposed to use of Facebook in general.

“Mature democracies in which social media use is widespread hold elections all the time — for instance Germany’s election last week — without the disfiguring presence of violence,” Clegg said in the memo, which was first reported Saturday by the New York Times.

The defiant tone of the memo — as well as its aggressive timing, coming hours ahead Haguen’s appearance on CBS “60 Minutes” — caught the attention of former employees and also some longtime critics.

“They’ve signaled they’re going to apologize less,” said Rashad Robinson, president of civil rights nonprofit Color of Change, which in the past has organized advertiser boycotts against the company. “They know they aren’t accountable, and now they aren’t going to be apologizing, either.”

The claims from Haugen echo ones leveled against the company for years but are unusual for the thousands of pages of documentary evidence she downloaded from the company’s own computer systems and shared with lawmakers and news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on her allegations against the company.

Although the company’s stock price was down nearly 5 percent after the unusual outage on Monday, its previous controversies have not seriously undermined its business. Facebook now boasts 3.5 billion users — more than half of Internet users in the world — across its subsidiaries, and its reach is so great that the outage was treated as a major story.

Starting with revelations in 2017 that Russian operatives used Facebook to interfere in the U.S. election a year earlier, the company has been subject to a degree of public scrutiny other social media firms largely have avoided. It has been subjected to advertiser boycotts, viral calls for users to quit the service, civil rights allegations, a record FTC penalty for privacy failures and harsh criticism by leaders of both major political parties.

There have also been numerous whistleblowers, including some former executives who have spoken out. One of them, Sophie Zhang, helped bring forward a trove of internal documents alleging that the company turned a blind eye to foreign governments that spread disinformation.

Yet each time, the company has weathered the attacks, its stock price maintaining, with brief declines, steady growth that has made Facebook one of the 21st century’s leading corporate success stories. Even with its stock price decline Monday, its market capitalization of nearly $920 billion makes it among the most valuable companies across the world.

Investors who resisted the urge to sell on July 26, 2018, for instance — following a $100 billion decline that was the largest in Wall Street history and widely blamed on Facebook’s privacy missteps — saw their holdings double in value before the most recent scandal-related downturn.

“There’s a ton of horrible things on Facebook, and there’s lot of valuable stuff on Facebook,” said Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft, a group dedicated to fighting misinformation that has a Facebook partnership but also has criticized its failings. “The stock price keeps going up,” she said. “From a regulatory standpoint, I don’t see anything any time soon.”

Boland said top corporate leaders are blinded to the platform’s problems because they still believe that the company does far more good than harm. That means efforts to understand and mitigate the problems aren’t taken seriously enough or are ended prematurely, Boland said.

That matches Haugen’s allegation that numerous steps the company took to curb misinformation and the spread of extremist content ahead of the 2020 presidential election were withdrawn far too soon when ongoing implementation might have calmed the vote’s turbulent aftermath, which culminated with the historic Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The leaked documents “are not definitive, but they are red flags,” Boland said. “If you were really concerned about the impact of your product, you would want to chase those red flags and see if they were true or not. You would not be satisfied if your car ran well only 80 percent of the time.”

Haugen revealed evidence that a change in the formula Facebook uses to direct content to a user’s news feed resulted in the belief among European political parties that they had to adopt far more extreme stances to reach audiences on Facebook. She also argued the company’s algorithms have the effect of surfacing extreme content that entices users to click more — and generate more profit for the company — despite evidence that such tactics intensify partisan feelings and distort democratic political debate.

Her complaint to the SEC that the company’s private research contradicted its public representations to investors was embraced by the company’s critics in Congress. “Facebook certainly misled and deceived the public, and so their investors may well have been deceived as well,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Washington Post on Sunday. He called on the SEC to take the allegations from Haugen “very seriously.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have lambasted Facebook for years, amid polls showing the company is deeply unpopular with much of the public. Despite that, little has been done to bring the company to heel.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden supports “fundamental reforms” after the news reports detailing Haugen’s claims. “This is just the latest in a series of revelations about social media platforms that make clear that self-regulation is not working,” Psaki said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Oct. 4 that Facebook whistleblower revelations show that social media self-regulation "is not working". (Video: The Washington Post)

But despite the political pressure, Facebook is unlikely to return to the playbook it used in 2017, when Zuckerberg took to his personal Facebook page on Yom Kippur to issue an apology and ask for forgiveness “for the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together.”

His apology was accompanied by a major initiative to invest resources in combating harms such as fake news and disinformation, hiring thousands of researchers and content moderators and creating a new forensic division tasked with pursuing bad actors, including foreign governments, seeking to manipulate public opinion on its service. Haugen’s division at Facebook, civic integrity, was a direct outgrowth of that investment.

After the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg adopted a talking point that Facebook “needed to take a broader view of its responsibilities,” which executives would use repeatedly for over a year.

Katie Harbath, a former Facebook executive for public policy during both the Russian meddling and Cambridge Analytica scandals, said previous controversies had resulted in extensive internal changes at the company, including an increased focus on privacy and research. But in the current moment, Facebook has changed its tone and approach. She also noted that this is the first major scandal that comes from within.

“This crisis feels different from others that Facebook has weathered because now they have more current and former employees speaking out and coming with documents. The company continues to defend itself, though with less apologizing,” she said, adding that the new approach felt more “honest” because the apologies started backfiring.

In recent weeks, as the Wall Street Journal first published reports based on the leaked documents, employees debated whether the criticisms were fair in internal chat rooms, several current employees said. One person noted that the company’s public response to allegations about Instagram, that many teenagers have a positive response to Instagram, did not address research that it can be harmful to others. But some employees said that Haugen was making claims that went out of her area of expertise.

Zhang, the other Facebook whistleblower, said that the company tried to discredit her after she came forward. “Facebook is increasingly struggling with the dichotomy of being an idealistic company that values openness and being a company that is for profit at the end of the day,” she said.

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.