Facebook in damage control mode after whistle-blower's testimony

Mr Mark Zuckerberg spent about 20 minutes discussing the whistle-blower, her testimony and recent media coverage. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - At a question-and-answer session with employees last week, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was asked about Ms Frances Haugen, a former product manager turned whistle-blower who had testified to the US Senate about the company's harmful actions.

Mr Zuckerberg spent about 20 minutes discussing the whistle-blower, her testimony and recent media coverage, all without mentioning Ms Haugen by name, according to a recording of the meeting The New York Times obtained.

Some of her assertions on how the platform polarises people, he told employees, were "pretty easy to debunk".

His comments were part of an internal effort that Facebook has begun to manage the fallout from Ms Haugen's revelations. Even as Facebook executives have publicly questioned Ms Haugen's credibility and called her accusations untrue, they have been equally active with their internal positioning as they try to hang on to the goodwill of more than 63,000 workers and assuage their concerns about the whistle-blower.

To counter Ms Haugen's claims - which were backed by internal documents that showed Facebook's services hurt some children's self-esteem and abetted human trafficking - executives have conducted live internal events with employees, held emergency briefing sessions and sent numerous memos, according to some of the memos obtained by the Times and interviews with about a dozen current and former employees.

Company officials have also provided information on how employees should respond when they are "asked questions about recent events by friends and family", according to one memo.

Facebook has acted swiftly as staff have become divided on Ms Haugen, the people said. In internal messages from the past week seen by the Times, one worker said Ms Haugen was "saying things that many people here have been saying for years" and that the company should listen to her. Another called her testimony "amazing" and said she was a "hero".

But others said Ms Haugen should be served with a cease-and-desist order or sued for breaking her non-disclosure agreement with Facebook. Several disparaged her for lacking knowledge of the topics she addressed in her congressional testimony, according to messages viewed by the Times.

The employee debate is the latest headache for Facebook created by Ms Haugen, 37, who worked on the civic misinformation team for nearly two years before leaving in May. During her time at the company, Ms Haugen amassed a trove of internal Facebook research, which she has since distributed to news outlets, lawmakers and regulators to prove that the social network knew about many of the ill effects it was causing.

Her disclosures have generated a firestorm of criticism, leading Facebook to pause the development of an Instagram service for children. Furthermore, its global head of safety, Ms Antigone Davis, faced sharp questioning from Congress. After Ms Haugen revealed her identity, she told Congress that Facebook was deliberately keeping people - including children - hooked to its services. Many lawmakers thanked her for coming forward.

In a statement on Sunday (Oct 10), Mr Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said: "Since so much of what has been reported about Facebook is wrong, we think it's important to provide our employees with the facts."

Ms Haugen declined to comment on Mr Zuckerberg's remarks or the internal discussions, but said in a statement that she came forward partly because of what she called understaffing of teams that worked on misinformation and protecting elections.

She said her former Facebook colleagues "deserve staffing that reflects the enormous magnitude of the work they are doing".

Ms Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, on Oct 5. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Over the years, Facebook's employees have become increasingly outspoken. In June last year, for instance, hundreds of workers staged a walkout to protest against their bosses' lack of action on inflammatory posts that then US President Donald Trump had published on the site.

Those disagreements, along with questions that Facebook has faced over spreading misinformation and hate speech, have chipped away at the company's image, which can make it more difficult to recruit new workers.

So when Ms Haugen revealed herself and said Facebook had chosen "profits before safety", executives swung into action. Over the past week, several corporate vice-presidents have held live internal events to provide employees with more information on how different parts of the company operate, according to a memo obtained by the Times.

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The sessions included ones with Mr Guy Rosen, vice-president for integrity; Mr Ronan Bradley, vice-president for analytics and research; Ms Monika Bickert, vice-president for content policy; and Ms Pratiti Raychoudhury, vice-president and head of research, the memo said.

Each talked about topics such as what the company understands about polarisation, changes to the news feed algorithm and how executives were keeping the social media platform safe.

Executives also distributed a list of talking points, a copy of which was obtained by the Times, so that employees knew what to say if friends and family asked them about "recent events". That list included a denial that Facebook puts profit and growth above people's safety and how the company has called for regulations from the government.

In Mr Zuckerberg's regularly scheduled question-and-answer session with employees, which took place last Thursday, he defended Facebook and disputed Ms Haugen's characterisations, the recording of the meeting shows.

"We care deeply about issues like safety and well-being and mental health," he said at one point. "So when you see press coverage that just misrepresents our work and takes that out of context and then uses that to tell narratives that are false about our motives, it's really hard and disheartening..."

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Between questions about a crippling Facebook outage on Oct 4, when all of the company's apps became inaccessible globally for more than five hours, and issues surrounding labour certification for foreign employees, Mr Zuckerberg also argued that Facebook spent far more on research and safety than larger firms such as Google, Apple and Microsoft.

He also assured employees that Facebook would eventually come out for the better.

"The path to the long term is not smooth, right? It's not this, like this straight line," Mr Zuckerberg said. "You know, sometimes, you get thrashed."

Outside of the meeting, employees have had furious debates about Ms Haugen and her claims. Some have argued that Facebook should invite her to speak at a company-wide meeting, according to messages viewed by the Times. One said her testimony was a "wake-up call" for Facebook that felt long overdue.

But other workers questioned Ms Haugen's motives, her background and her credentials. In one internal message, an employee said Ms Haugen was "clueless". Some said she lacked technical knowledge.

"She didn't know how basic stacks worked," wrote one Facebook engineer, referring to a term used by the engineering team to describe how data is structured in computer programing. He also said all of her testimony should be disqualified.

Others said Ms Haugen and media coverage had misrepresented the kind of work they do at Facebook. In two public blog posts last week, Ms Veronika Belokhvostova, a Facebook director who oversees data science, collected testimonials from colleagues to point out how much progress they had made on safety, speech and other issues over the past few years.

Some employees also speculated that Ms Haugen was motivated to leak because she was not allowed to work remotely from Puerto Rico, where she had moved during the coronavirus pandemic.

The discussions became so intense that Facebook's internal communications department issued a directive last week for workers not to disparage Ms Haugen.

"We are increasingly hearing about reporter requests to employees to discuss Frances Haugen and people's sentiments about her," Ms Andrea Saul, a director of policy communications, said in a memo viewed by the Times.

"We have had employees specifically ask if they can defend the company by referencing experiences they had with her. PLEASE DO NOT ENGAGE in these conversations.

"Disparaging her personally is not right, it's not allowed, and it's not who we are as a company," Ms Saul wrote.

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