Facebook goes on offense ahead of whistleblower revelations on network’s role in 6 January Capitol riot

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of global affairs, argued against allegations that the company was like ‘Big Tobacco’

Sheila Flynn
in Denver
Sunday 03 October 2021 22:49
Facebook denies reports of ignoring research

Facebook was on the offense this weekend as the clock ticked down to a company whistleblower coming forward with revelations about the social network.

The whistleblower is due to reveal their identity on news programme 60 Minutes on Sunday. The former employee, who has turned over thousands of potentially damaging documents regarding company policy, is expected to allege that Facebook had dismantled security protections too soon after the 2020 election, contributing to the fallout and Capitol riots; disregarded or failed to disclose damaging research; and profited from users sharing divisive content.

The social media giant has been accused of failing to adequately address known harmful consequences of its platform and its tools. Key amongst the criticisms is that Facebook has contributed to the 6 January storming of the Capitol, political polarization across America and even negatively affected teens’ mental health.

Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg sent an internal memo on Friday responding to myriad company criticisms. He then appeared on CNN on Sunday to make many of the same arguments.

The whistleblower’s documents and assertions have led to a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal and subsequently-announced Senate hearings.

The consumer protection subcommittee will hold its second hearing on Tuesday regarding the effects of Instagram - which is owned by Facebook - on children. The whistleblower is expected to give evidence this week.

Mr Clegg’s Friday memo, obtained by The New York Times and published in full, disputed allegations and attempted to pre-empt others to come by calling them “misleading”.

“This Sunday night, the ex-employee who leaked internal company material to the Journal will appear in a segment on 60 Minutes on CBS,” the memo told employees.

“We understand the piece is likely to assert that we contribute to polarization in the United States, and suggest that the extraordinary steps we took for the 2020 elections were relaxed too soon and contributed to the horrific of events of January 6th in the Capitol.”

It continued: “Social media has had a big impact on society in recent years, and Facebook is often a place where much of this debate plays out,” the Times cited the memo as stating.

“But what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarization.”

Mr Clegg doubled down on those points on Sunday while appearing on Reliable Sources where host Brian Stelter grilled him, saying it felt like he was “interviewing the head of a tobacco company right now”.

The British politician-turned-Facebook executive said he considered any comparisons between the tobacco industry and Facebook to be “profoundly false”.

“I don’t think it’s remotely like tobacco,” he said. “Social media apps ... people download them on their phones. And why do they do that? There has to be a reason why a third of the world’s population enjoys using these apps. They do it because they like exchanging their views, their feelings.”

Other documents and whistleblower claims suggest that the company was sweeping damaging research under the rug. Mr Clegg refuted that and threw it back at the CNN host on Sunday.

“I’m sure at CNN there’s internal research on how different demographics of the population react to your programme,” he said. “And some of it will be public and some of it will be internal. Facebook is no different.”

He countered that, instead of ignoring problems, at Facebook “we need to be open and acknowledge” missteps.

“There’s no such thing as perfect in social media ... we don’t plow on regardless,” he added.

Last week allegations emerged that Instagram could be worsening girls’ body image issues and fuelling other problematic trends. It led to the company pausing development of an Instagram service for children aged 13 and under.

Facebook algorithms have also come under fire, particularly changes to the news feed in 2018. Mr Clegg reasserted that social media was just one of many factors in an ever-changing world.

“I think it would be too easy, surely, to suggest that, with a tweak to an algorithm, somehow all the disfiguring polarisation in US politics would suddenly evaporate,” he said Sunday.

“I think it absolves people of asking themselves the harder questions about the historical, cultural, social and economic reasons that have led to the politics that have have the US today.”

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