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Reporters who pored over internal documents discuss what's next for Facebook

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. You can be forgiven if you have lost track of some of the Facebook news that has come gushing out over the last month and a half. I know I have. As one of the world's biggest tech companies, Facebook is always in the news. But ever since whistleblower Frances Haugen began leaking tens of thousands of pages of documents about the inner workings of the company last month, there has been a deluge of stories. That leak was first reported in The Wall Street Journal, and then a bunch of other news organizations also started publishing a series of stories based on those documents.

So, yeah, it has been a lot. And that is why we have called some of the reporters who have been digging into these internal documents. We have with us now NPR's own tech reporter, Shannon Bond. We also have The Wall Street Journal's Jeff Horwitz. He's the reporter Frances Haugen first leaked the documents to. And also joining us is Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post. Welcome to all three of you.

JEFF HORWITZ: Thank you.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Thanks, Ailsa.

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: And before we dive in, we should note that Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays to license NPR content. So we will get to Meta in a moment. That's Facebook's new rebranding. But, Jeff, you were the first reporter to take a look at all these documents, so I just want to start with you. What was your big takeaway after you perused all of these pages and pages?

HORWITZ: I think what stood out after reading all these things - and it took quite a while - is that the company has invested heavily in understanding the societal issues it aggravates and the problems that its platform can create for users and non-users alike. And they have come up, in fact, with pretty good solutions to mitigate some of the things that people outside the company have been hollering about for years. I think the fascinating thing is that the company does have this work on hand, and in many instances, they've just simply chosen not to implement the solutions that their own people have to come up with.

CHANG: Liza (ph), what about you? What struck you most after looking at these documents?

DWOSKIN: This is a company that is no stranger to controversy. In fact, it's been mired in controversy over its actions and its impact on the world for the better part of its existence and certainly the last five years. But this crisis is so existential to Facebook because it comes from within. In previous scandals, it was outside actors abusing the service - Russian disinformation, Cambridge Analytica. It was outside political actors affiliated with the Trump campaign. But in this, it was their own employees raising alarm bells. And it was stuff like, you know, hey, it only takes less than a week for our algorithms to start recommending conspiracies like QAnon to conservatives or, hey, we're only taking down less than 1% of hate speech in countries like Afghanistan.

BOND: What's really striking is these messages on Facebook's own internal message board. For example, on January 6, you know, as this pro-Trump mob is storming the Capitol, Facebook employees are sort of watching in horror. There's an executive who was posting about, you know, how he's upset by what he's seeing, and we're hearing Facebook employees type out messages saying, look, we've been fueling this fire for a long time. We can't be surprised it's out of control and saying, you know, there are ideas that have been put forward by, you know, the workers here to fix some of these problems, and leadership hasn't taken any action on them.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about how Facebook could be rethinking things right now. I mean, Liza, do you think that these leaks from Frances Haugen was sort of like this tipping point and that's why we've now entered the so-called Metaverse? Like, why do you think Meta has become the new name of Facebook? Why now?

DWOSKIN: I think they're desperate to find a new identity. I know from sourcing that Zuckerberg himself is really just wanting to distance himself from the problems. With Facebook, it's always this cognitive dissonance where on one side they're fighting the journalists, they're accusing us of some kind of bad faith conspiracy for coming together to report on these documents. And then there's this other side that's just like, we want to run away. A person who worked at Facebook once described it to me as it's like there's a fire raging in California, and Facebook wants to say, but let's look over there in Hawaii. The one thing that also stood out to me about the name change is that Facebook still wants to dominate, and they want to dominate the future.

CHANG: And, Shannon, I mean, how would you say media fits into Facebook's long term business plan?

BOND: The other, I think, real business imperative here is, you know, as we've seen in these documents, you know, the company is very alarmed about how much its social media user base is aging. You know, in addition to all of the stuff about the Metaverse, I mean, the other important things we heard from Zuckerberg this week is that he's retooling the whole company around appealing to people under 30, right? This is an existential problem for them.

CHANG: Well, you know, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, says that all of these documents that ended up getting leaked, they portrayed a company, according to her, that puts profits ahead of the common good. We saw this situation years and years ago when federal and state officials swooped in and dealt with Big Tobacco. Facebook claims now it's doing what is necessary, but is that true? What can be done to tackle some of these problems that we've been talking about? Can anyone control this company?

HORWITZ: So Facebook really likes to talk a lot about hard tradeoffs, right? In fact, there was an - infamously, there was a blog they had titled Hard Trade-Offs.

CHANG: It literally was called Hard Trade-Offs?

HORWITZ: Yes. And the problem we've had is that this is a transformational technology, and the only people who have fully understood the scope of that literally work inside of Facebook or they worked inside of Facebook. And I've been talking with Frances for a long time, going on a year now, about some of this stuff. And I think one of the sort of early motivations for her doing this was because we did not, outside the company, have the factual basis to regulate it well.

And so I think one of the things that could be most useful coming out of this and that I'm optimistic might be sort of first in line is figuring out how to get reliable data access out of that company in a way that doesn't involve somebody like Ms. Haugen, who is going to just sort of at great personal risk decide that she's going to do it her damn self.

CHANG: Well, ultimately, what do you think the stakes are for figuring out how to handle Facebook? Like, what does solving these problems - what do those solutions mean for our democracy?

HORWITZ: So it's not just our democracy, it's a lot of democracies and a lot of human lives. I think Facebook is at this point pretty close to the air we breathe in terms of social discourse. It affects not just what you see on Facebook, but what you see on television and what you read in the newspaper and what you see on other social media platforms. If we can't figure out what a reasonable framework for encouraging reasonable public discourse is, we're in a lot of trouble.

BOND: I think Jeff is right. I mean, I think so much of this here in the U.S., where we are keenly attuned to all of the problems of this platform, we're also experiencing the best possible version of it. And so, you know, frankly, the risks elsewhere in the world are even greater. And, you know, it's - this is a company, you know, has - there are almost 3 billion monthly users at this point.

There's just not a world in which we're just going to flip the switch and turn Facebook off, right? It is so embedded in our lives and has really remade the way a lot of our lives work, you know, the way we process information, the way we communicate, the way we buy things. And so we need to grapple with what that means and what other parts of our society need to change, you know, around Facebook, not just changing Facebook.

CHANG: That was NPR's Shannon Bond, The Wall Street Journal's Jeff Horwitz and Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post talking about Facebook and the Facebook Papers. Thanks to all three of you.

BOND: Happy to do it, Ailsa.

HORWITZ: Thank you.

DWOSKIN: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.