Whistleblower to accuse Facebook of contributing to Capitol riot in TV interview

The whistleblower was also set to say that Facebook had contributed to political polarisation in the United States. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Facebook, which has been under fire from a former employee who has revealed that the social network knew of many of the harms it was causing, was bracing itself for new accusations over the weekend from the whistleblower, saying in a memo that it was preparing to mount a vigorous defence.

The whistleblower, whose identity has not been publicly disclosed, planned to accuse the company of relaxing its security safeguards for the 2020 presidential election too soon after Election Day, which then led it to be used in the storming of the United States Capitol on Jan 6, according to the internal memo obtained by The New York Times.

The whistleblower planned to discuss the allegations on 60 Minutes on Sunday (Oct 3), the memo said, and was also set to say that Facebook had contributed to political polarisation in the US.

The 1,500-word memo, written by Mr Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice-president of policy and global affairs, was sent on Friday to employees to pre-empt the whistleblower's interview. Mr Clegg pushed back strongly on what he said were the coming accusations, calling them "misleading".

60 Minutes published a teaser of the interview in advance of its segment on Sunday.

"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," he wrote. "But what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarisation."

Facebook has been in an uproar for weeks because of the whistleblower, who has shared thousands of pages of company documents with lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal. The Journal has published a series of articles based on the documents, which show that Facebook knew how its apps and services could cause harm, including worsening body image issues among teenage girls using Instagram.

Facebook has since scrambled to contain the fallout, as lawmakers, regulators and the public have said the company needs to account for the revelations.

Last week, Facebook paused the development of an Instagram service for children aged 13 and younger. Its global head of safety, Ms Antigone Davis, also testified on Thursday as irate lawmakers questioned her about the effects of Facebook and Instagram on young users.

Inside Facebook, executives including Mr Clegg and the "Strategic Response" teams have called a series of emergency meetings to try to extinguish some of the outrage.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Ms Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, have been briefed on the responses and have approved them, but have remained behind the scenes to distance themselves from the negative press, people with knowledge of the company have said.

The firestorm is far from over. Facebook anticipated more allegations during the whistleblower's 60 Minutes interview, according to the memo.

The whistleblower, who plans to reveal her identity during the interview, was set to say that Facebook had turned off some of its safety measures around the election - such as limits on live video - too soon after Election Day, the memo said. That allowed for misinformation to flood the platform and for groups to congregate online and plan the Jan 6 storming of the Capitol building.

Mr Clegg said that was an inaccurate view and cited many of the safeguards and security mechanisms that Facebook had built over the past five years. He said the company had removed millions of groups such as the Proud Boys and others related to causes such as the conspiracy theory QAnon and #StopTheSteal election-fraud claims.

Protestors scale a wall of the US Capitol in Washington on Jan 6, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The whistleblower was also set to claim that many of Facebook's problems stemmed from changes in the News Feed in 2018, the memo said. That was when the social network tweaked its algorithm to emphasise what it called Meaningful Social Interactions, or MSI, which prioritised posts from users' friends and family and de-emphasised posts from publishers and brands.

The goal was to make sure that Facebook's products were "not just fun, but are good for people," Mr Zuckerberg said in an interview about the change at the time.

But according to Friday's memo, the whistleblower would say that the change contributed to even more polarisation among Facebook's users. The whistleblower was also set to say that Facebook then reaped record profits as its users flocked to the divisive content, the memo said.

Mr Clegg warned that the period ahead could be difficult for employees who might face questions from friends and family about Facebook's role in the world. But he said that societal problems and political polarisation have long predated the company and the advent of social networks in general.

"The simple fact remains that changes to algorithmic ranking systems on one social media platform cannot explain wider societal polarisation," he wrote. "Indeed, polarising content and misinformation are also present on platforms that have no algorithmic ranking whatsoever, including private messaging apps like iMessage and WhatsApp."

Mr Clegg, who was scheduled to appear on the CNN program "Reliable Sources" on Sunday morning, also tried to relay an upbeat note to employees.

"We will continue to face scrutiny - some of it fair and some of it unfair," he said in the memo. "But we should also continue to hold our heads up high."

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