Some state attorneys general are already scrutinizing Haugen’s public revelations — and saying they could lead to enforcement action targeting Facebook.
Connecticut attorney general William Tong and more than a dozen other Democratic state attorneys general on Wednesday sent a letter to Facebook, demanding more information about the company’s handling of vaccine misinformation, in response to a Wall Street Journal article based on internal documents Haugen leaked to the outlet.
In their letter, the attorneys general say that they are concerned about Facebook’s XCheck system, which shields VIP users from standard enforcement process, might have employed by the “disinformation dozen,” a group of high-profile social media users identified by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, known for spreading anti-vaccine content. Tong’s letter did not specify why they suspected the disinformation dozen were part of XCheck. The Journal article said the program grew to include more than 5 million high-profile accounts.
The letter asks Facebook to share information about whether the content posted by XCheck members included vaccine content, and for more information about how the platform is addressing vaccine misinformation in its comments. It also asks the company why several leading anti-vaccine activists, including Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., remain on Facebook, especially after YouTube removed those accounts. (Facebook has removed Kennedy from Instagram, owned by Facebook, for violating its rules.)
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone referred The Washington Post to previous statements stating that the platform has removed more than three dozen pages, groups and Facebook or Instagram accounts linked to the disinformation dozen, and also imposed penalties, like moving their posts lower in News Feed, so fewer people see them.
But policymakers from the White House and state capitals say they are frustrated by a lack of transparency from the company during a public health crisis.
Tong’s letter comes as a bipartisan group of state attorneys general have also raised concerns about Facebook’s efforts to target children. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general wrote to Facebook calling for the company to permanently suspend its plans to build an Instagram Kids service. After Facebook said it would pause building the service, in light of revelations from Haugen’s leaked documents about studies depicting Instagram’s negative impact on the body image of some teen girls, two of the attorneys general said the company’s response was insufficient.
But Tong said his office is engaged in broad scrutiny of the ways Facebook could be leading to harm.
“We’re looking at all manners which they push information out through their platform and how that information puts people at risk,” said Tong.
State attorneys general could be a particularly formidable challenger to Facebook because they have broad authorities to enforce state laws. Though laws vary state to state, attorneys general can generally target companies for lying to consumers or putting their health at risk. The SEC, which has already received the documents, has more narrow authorities focused on financial markets.
Tong said if his office finds evidence that the company has been lying to Connecticut consumers or engaged in misconduct, he will take action.
Haugen has sought to draw parallels between Facebook and tobacco companies, which faced regulation after the companies lied about harmful health effects of their products. In 1998, state attorneys general from 46 states, five territories and D.C., reached a landmark settlement with the four largest cigarette makers, which prevented them from marketing their products to young people and significantly restricted advertising materials, including banning the companies from using cartoons.
Over the past two years, there’s been growing momentum among state attorneys general harness the powers of their office in probes of large tech companies. But the path to enforcing existing consumer protection laws against tech giants is challenging because it’s difficult to quantify the companies impact on consumers: they don’t charge for their services and there is limited research available on social media’s impact on users well-being.
To date, most of the tech-related action at the state level has been focused on antitrust, and early setbacks have indicated how challenging it can be for states to go up against the tech industry. Last year, 48 state attorneys general filed a landmark antitrust case against Facebook, accusing the company of anticompetitive conduct. A federal judge threw out the case over the summer, arguing that the states had waited too long to challenge the company’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram and 2014 purchase of WhatsApp. The states plan to appeal that decision.
But Tong said antitrust should just be one prong of the states efforts to address tech’s powers.
“I’m very concerned from a consumer protection perspective about how Facebook does damage to people and families, and puts them at risk,” he said. He said that his office is talking to other state offices, as well as federal agencies about its concerns.
Lawmakers from both parties said that Haugen’s revelations could mark a turning point in the years-long efforts to put guardrails on social networks.
“We’re closely monitoring what Facebook is doing,” Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey (D), who led the Instagram Kids letter, said in an interview.