Top outlets (sort of) team up to make Facebook’s awful month worse

Last Monday—five weeks after the Wall Street Journal began publishing the Facebook Files, a series based on documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook staffer, showing that the company knows full well that many of its products cause harm—Facebook’s PR apparatus appeared to snap. “Right now 30+ journalists are finishing up a coordinated series of articles based on thousands of pages of leaked documents,” an official company account tweeted. “We hear that to get the docs, outlets had to agree to the conditions and a schedule laid down by the PR team that worked on earlier leaked docs.” The account then referred to the purported collaboration as an “orchestrated ‘gotcha’ campaign.” Journalists roundly roasted Facebook for its conspiratorial characterization of their craft, and pointed out that Facebook has itself embargoed information, as has just about every other major company under the sun. Nevertheless, there is something extraordinary about what this collaboration turned out to be. Having initially worked only with the Journal, Haugen provided documents to seventeen typically-competitive US news outlets—including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN—and others in Europe, opening “the journalistic equivalent of an outlet store,” as Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, put it. Per Smith, the journalists working on the documents have communicated in a Slack group named “Apparently We’re a Consortium Now.”

The “consortium” agreed to publish its findings starting today, but that agreement didn’t quite hold, and the first stories started to emerge on Friday, prompting a weekend flood. Many of them concerned Facebook’s role in the circulation of disinformation, not least around the 2020 US presidential election and subsequent insurrection. NBC reported that Facebook “has long known its algorithms and recommendation systems push some users” toward extreme, conspiratorial content. The Times reported that Facebook “was caught flat-footed as users weaponized its platform to spread lies about the vote.” The Post reported that Facebook seemingly “moved too quickly after the election to lift measures that had helped suppress some election-related misinformation.” CNN reported that Facebook was “fundamentally unprepared for how the Stop the Steal movement used its platform to organize,” and “only truly swung into action after the movement, which played a pivotal role in the insurrection, had turned violent.” The Associated Press reported that as the insurrection unfolded, Facebook engineers raced to “tweak internal controls to slow the spread of misinformation and inciteful content.” Bloomberg reported that, “over the 24 hours that followed the insurrection, employees… used the internal version of Facebook to debate the company’s performance in frank terms.”

ICYMI: Britain mulls protecting leakers. The US must do the same.

Yesterday, the focus of several stories based on the documents—including in the Times, the Post, and the AP, as well as in the Journal—shifted away from the US and overseas, examining Facebook’s culpability for fueling toxic discourse, including anti-Muslim hate speech, in India, in particular. (“The reason I wanted to do this project,” Haugen has said, “is because I think the global South is in danger.”) Facebook staffers prepared “dozens of studies and memos” on the platform’s role in India that, the Times reported, “provide stark evidence of one of the most serious criticisms levied by human rights activists and politicians against the world-spanning company: It moves into a country without fully understanding its potential impact on local culture and politics, and fails to deploy the resources to act on issues once they occur.”

More such stories are set to follow today and in the days to come. (CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan has started a list to help keep track of the consortium’s collective work, but judging by the weekend’s barrage of push notifications and social-media sharing, you might not need it.) The barrage has worsened what was already a terrible news cycle for Facebook, stretching back to the Journal publishing its initial stories and Haugen revealing her identity on 60 Minutes and then testifying before Congress, throughout which the specter of regulation has seemed to loom larger than ever (though many Congressional specters turn out to be paper tigers). This, of course, is not Facebook’s first bout of sustained bad publicity—we all remember the 2016 election and Cambridge Analytica scandal—but the current reckoning feels especially intense. There are a range of reasons for that. The documents leaked by Haugen contain very important new evidence; one of the Journal’s early stories reported that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, knew that its product was harmful to many users, in particular teenage girls, which is an issue of emotive and immediate concern for millions of people who might not have strongly held views on the ins and outs of a data-privacy scandal. Still, not everything that the consortium is centering is new information, exactly. Fierce political and media headwinds have been whipping around Facebook for a long time now—and Haugen appears to have been very savvy about accelerating them. Time will tell if they’re blowing toward a tipping point.

Facebook, for its part, has continued to hit back—characterizing stories based on the documents as selective and unfair, defending many of its content-moderation decisions, and insisting that others were responsible for the insurrection, not least the insurrectionists themselves. In recent weeks, the company has dispatched Nick Clegg, its vice president for global affairs and communications, to tour TV studios, where he’s made the case that the good stuff on Facebook’s platforms outweighs the bad, and that bad stuff is inevitable given how widely the platforms are used. As the negative headlines intensified over the weekend, Clegg took a shot at the press in a memo to his colleagues. “In the past, public discourse was largely curated by established gatekeepers in the media who decided what people could read, see and digest,” he wrote. “Social media has enabled people to decide for themselves,” he added, which is “both empowering for individuals—and disruptive to those who hanker after the top-down controls of the past, especially if they are finding the transition to the online world a struggle for their own businesses.”

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I’ve long found Clegg an interesting figure: I’m from the United Kingdom, where he served as the liberal deputy prime minister in a rare, conservative-led coalition government in the early 2010s. As I noted when he joined Facebook, in 2018, Clegg was always likely to be a snug ideological fit with the company’s stated culture given his classical-liberal, decentralizing, techno-optimist views, and those have indeed been stamped clearly through his recent statements. I also noted that Clegg left office in the UK deeply unpopular and with a serious credibility problem, having failed to sell a skeptical electorate on his political project: basically, laissez-faire with some safeguards. Facebook, of course, is itself now a mammoth informational gatekeeper whose decisions shape public discourse, rather than merely holding up a mirror to an external marketplace of ideas. The stories emerging from Haugen’s leak show that clearly. They don’t cover the entirety of Facebook’s operations, but how could they? The company’s size is at the core of this story, and that story is manifestly in the public interest. The economic picture for news, and industry griping about it, doesn’t change that.

It’s notable that in reporting this new round of stories about Facebook, major news organizations haven’t channeled the competitive industry practices of old but instead coalesced at a remarkable scale; the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and similar groups have, in recent years, brought together much greater numbers of media partners to work through big leaks, but they haven’t tended to work at the same time with so many rival outlets from the same country. Smith reported yesterday that the documents arrangement was not without its challenges: the Journal apparently found it “awkward” that Haugen had gone to its rivals; one of the journalists involved described the consortium as “the weirdest thing I have ever been part of, reporting-wise”; the agreed-upon embargo effectively fell apart. But the overall, public-facing effect—a rash of bad news for Facebook—remains one of intense amplification. It’s hard to come away from the resulting stories as a techno-optimist.

Below, more on Facebook, social media, and whistleblowing:

  • Facebook, I: Haugen is continuing to speak out; she’ll testify before the British Parliament shortly. You can find more details here. On Friday, meanwhile, the Post’s Craig Timberg reported that a second Facebook whistleblower has submitted a sworn affidavit to the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the company prioritized profits over safety, and claiming, among other specifics, that they once heard a Facebook communications official refer to the 2016 election controversy engulfing the company as a “flash in the pan” while “we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine.” In response, a Facebook spokesperson told the Post that it was “beneath” the paper to publish that account, and said that “it sets a dangerous precedent to hang an entire story on a single source making a wide range of claims without any apparent corroboration.”
  • Facebook, II: Insider’s Kali Hays and Matt Drange report that a Facebook subsidiary recently completed a connection on the Oregon coast for fiber optic cable running under the Pacific—a “major technical achievement” that was nonetheless marred by delays, “a massive leak of drilling fluid, a drone dispute, tons of broken abandoned equipment, and at least two sinkholes.” The mishaps, Hays and Drange write, contributed to Oregon passing regulations for future undersea-cable projects, requiring “detailed plans and cost estimates for removal of cable and equipment, and financial assurance [to] cover other expenses related to returning areas to their natural state.”
  • Social media: Last week, Donald Trump announced plans to launch Truth Social, a social-media company that will be super-committed to free speech unless that speech involves disparaging the company and its management. Writing for the Journal, Patience Haggin and Michael C. Bender assessed how the planned site might fit into an already-crowded media landscape on the right. “Trump’s new venture comes as his family business has faced financial troubles,” Haggin and Bender note.
  • Whistleblowing: For CJR, Edward Wasserman explores the British government’s efforts to tighten its Official Secrets Act in ways that could “expose both reporters and the whistle-blowers they rely on to penalties previously reserved for espionage, and criminalize the very best journalism.” A public-interest defense seems unlikely to be added; still, its emergence “as a serious proposal for another of our closest allies,” Wasserman writes, “underscores the authoritarianism of the US approach to secrets.”


A programming note, and an invitation:
Two weeks from now, I’ll be writing this newsletter from inside COP26, the vital global climate summit in Scotland, reporting and commenting on the media stories surrounding both the conference and the climate crisis itself. If you or your news organization is headed to COP, I’d love to hear about your coverage plans (especially if you’re lining up something innovative) or just to say hi. If you aren’t heading to COP, I’d love to hear about what you’re looking for from others’ coverage of the conference, or any thoughts you may have on the state of climate journalism generally. You can reach me at [email protected].  


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Sir Nick Clegg (right) alongside Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Niall Carson/PA Wire via AP Images