Facebook has not been having the best week, from the whistleblower hearing about child safety to the six-hour blackout of every Facebook service. For those who aren’t in the know, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen revealed details about the Facebook algorithm suggesting that it purposely promotes hate for profit. As a result of everything, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has lost USD 6 billion (RM25 billion) of his net worth in only a couple of hours.
Zuckerberg seemed to have gone into hiding since everything went down. Both him and COO Sheryl Sandberg were not present during the Facebook whistleblower hearing, despite some Senators asking for a response from the executives. In fact, Zuckerberg posted a video of himself sailing with his wife and some friends just two days ago on Instagram.
After a long wait, Mark Zuckerberg finally gave a response, saying that Haugen’s claims “don’t make any sense” and that the argument that they “deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical.” He goes into a lot more detail in the full post, and you can read it on his Facebook page.
Before that though, Facebook Director of Policy Communications Lena Pietsch came out with a PR response to Haugen’s claims that was much, much worse.
Facebook’s PR response to the allegations
The response starts off with this sentence: “Today a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.”
It is clear from the beginning that Facebook is trying to discredit Haugen’s character from the start pointing out her corporate deficiencies. They say she ‘never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives’, but failed to mention that she worked for big tech companies for 15 years and was a data expert hired to work against misinformation. Facebook has not refuted any of Haugen’s claims with proof (presumably because they have none).
Facebook continues and concludes with the following statement: “We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”
Once again, they do not have any proof to discredit Haugen’s claims, so they just ‘don’t agree’ with her. Then, Facebook changes the subject and shifts the blame onto the government instead of taking any responsibility for their misuse of power.
If Facebook really wanted someone who had direct reports, then maybe they should listen to Samidh Chakrabarti, Haugen’s former boss’ boss. He fit Facebook’s description for a trustworthy worker pretty well, and said that Haugen’s concerns were ‘entirely valid for debate’.
Similarities to Big Tobacco’s response to a whistleblower
Jeffrey Wigand was a whistleblower that exposed the Brown & Williamson (B&W) Tobacco Corporation for knowingly causing harm to the population with an addictive substance. Sound familiar?
PR expert John Scanlon was then tasked to change “the story of B&W to a narrative about Wigand’s personality”. This is very close to what Facebook is doing with Haugen, discrediting her claims just because she only “worked for the company for less than two years”, even though she has the proof and papers to back up her claims.
Of course, Scanlon’s approach didn’t work and now Wigand is a hero. It seems to be the same case with Frances Haugen, with Senator Markey calling her “a 21st-century American hero” and saying that “our nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude”.
Even though the first PR response was terrible, Zuckerberg’s post detailed a lot of counter-arguments against Haugen’s claims. Hopefully soon we will see a more productive discussion between Zuckerberg, Haugen, and the Senate that will lead to tangible change in the future.