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Facebook contributed to the January 6 insurrection by shutting down an internal team charged with preventing civil unrest just weeks before the Capitol riots, according to a bombshell interview with a Facebook whistleblower.
After its abject failure to prevent a widespread Russian disinformation campaign from influencing the outcome of the 2016 election, Facebook knew there would be intense scrutiny on the role it played in the 2020 presidential election.
The responsibility of stopping bad actors from weaponizing its platform fell to Civic Integrity, a 300-strong team inside Facebook who not only worked on U.S. elections but also dealt with an increasingly complex set of issues the company had to deal with in countries around the world.
Frances Haugen, a product manager who had worked at Facebook since 2019, was part of that team and was happy to be contributing to the effort to combat disinformation on the platform.
The 2020 election came and went without major real-world or online incidents. Facebook executives, believing they had done their duty, promptly disbanded the Civic Integrity team at the beginning of December, as part of a broader reshuffle within the company.
A month later, insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. They’d planned the incident at least in part on Facebook.
“It was the moment where I was like, ‘I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous,” Haugen told 60 Minutes in an interview broadcast on Sunday night.
“Facebook knowingly and actively helped organize and build extremist networks, and then allowed those same extremists to operationalize violence to be carried out off-platform,” Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, told VICE News in an emailed statement. “I’d like to say this was a bombshell allegation, but the whistleblower’s insights are no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention.”
Haugen, who has provided leaked internal Facebook documents and reports to the Wall Street Journal and Congress in recent weeks, handed in her resignation in April. Before departing the company in May, Haugen sifted through Facebook’s internal systems, reviewing thousands of documents looking at how the company operated.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen said in the interview. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
"Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they'll click on less ads, they'll make less money,” Haugen added.
In recent weeks, Facebook has faced a torrent of criticism after the Wall Street Journal published a series of bombshell articles based on documents provided by Haugen. The series revealed that Facebook rules don’t apply to VIPs, that Instagram is toxic for teenage girls—and the company knows it, that Facebook actually makes people angrier, and that the company has failed to invest in resources in the developing world, as seen by the Facebook’s failures in places like India, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, where the platform was accused of facilitating genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.
“The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world,” Haugen said.
Responding to the interview, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We stand by our public statements and are ready to answer any questions regulators may have about our work.”
When asked by VICE News about Haugen’s claim that the Civic Integrity team was shut down prematurely, the company denied the team was disbanded, saying Facebook “integrated their work into a more cohesive, larger organization, because the objective was to expand what they do.”
On Twitter, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone replied to a clip posted by 60 Minutes claiming that the company wants more regulation and that it has “spent millions of dollars running ads asking Congress to write new laws addressing privacy, data portability, election interference and more.”
The issue of regulation is likely to come up again when Haugen testifies at a Senate hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online” on Tuesday.
Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg are accustomed to criticism, but even by this company’s high standard, the last month has seen a seemingly never-ending wave of negative news stories coming out about the platform’s inability to deal with disinformation and protect its users—especially its most vulnerable ones.
Over the weekend, Facebook attempted to get ahead of the allegations the company knew Haugen would be making. Central to that effort was Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs. But rather than admitting the company’s failings and talking about how it was going to address them, the former British lawmaker attacked Haugen, calling her accusations “misleading” in an internal company memo Friday, and telling CNN the claims were “ludicrous” hours before the interview aired.
The comments echo Zuckerberg’s own words in the days following the 2016 election, when he dismissed the idea that Facebook influenced the outcome of the vote as “pretty crazy.” Of course, the Facebook CEO was soon trying to walk back those comments after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, showing the British company had harvested the data of 87 million Americans to help the Trump campaign.
“Frances Haugen’s evidence tonight was compelling and damning,” Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica story and co-founder of the activist group ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ told VICE News in an emailed statement.
“Facebook is a rogue state, lying to regulators, investors, and its own Oversight Board. What we are seeing today is a market failure with profound, devastating global consequences. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the moment to hold Facebook executives to account. But both the Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission failed to do their jobs. We are now living with this fallout,” Cadwalladr said.