Ritual humiliation of social media companies is becoming something of a tradition. Most typically, social media CEOs are hauled before Congress, harangued for a day, promise to “do better,” and then go back to business as usual.
Last week a new kind of social media witness appeared: a whistleblower. Frances Haugen emerged with a great deal of fanfare, complete with a public relations firm, a verified account on Twitter, and a fawning entourage, including members of the press and Congress. But instead of denouncing social media for its excessive power, wealth, and hostility to traditional American values, Haugen pleaded for regulations that happen to align with the peculiar values and interests of Silicon Valley.
She denounced free speech on the platform as a threat to democracy and lamented Facebook’s disbanding of its civil Integrity team, which was the key to Facebook’s recent meddling in American elections. While some of her criticisms were designed to appeal to normal people with normal sensibilities—such as exposing Facebook’s shockingly frank willingness to create algorithms to track and engage children—the bulk of her agenda was not so different from the preferences of social media leaders.
Namely, she wants social media to act as a gatekeeper and curator of content, much like the legacy media did before the internet was created. In an age of partisan and shockingly dishonest mainstream institutions, many people have lost all confidence in centralized control.
The unregulated alternative is not cost-free, of course. Anyone who has been on the internet for five minutes is aware that there are lies, falsehoods, and rumors afoot. But experienced users also learn how to sift through information and discover truths hidden by mainstream sources for reasons of power, self-interest, and ideology.
The “safety” measures Haugen is promoting show almost no respect for the principles of free speech, but rather seek to control content in ways calculated to align more closely with the controversial and cosmopolitan values of the people running Facebook and similar companies.
Large companies generally like regulation. After all, they can afford to navigate the web of rules and bureaucracy more easily than new companies can, and they usually have a large hand in creating the rules they will labor under. Facebook, for example, has a government relations budget of $20 million and avoids most liability for its actions under the protection of Section 230.
In other words, like the CEOs practically begging the government to mandate vaccination so that they can cull their workforces without spooking investors, it’s not so clear Facebook really disagrees with this whistleblower. It’s as if her whole act was designed at the highest levels to benefit Facebook or one of its competitors. At the very least, it seems likely a faction within Facebook is cheering her on, wanting to be more empowered to censor the company’s users, with the additional cover of saying it is necessary to comply with government mandates.
Facebook users and its leadership have diverged significantly. More than any other platform, Facebook’s demographic is older and more conservative. It is no Snapchat or TikTok. Thus, even liberal users frequently confront their unreformed family members circulating memes and viral stories suppressed by the mainstream media.
This is stressful to the left-leaning “data scientists” and “content engineers,” who treat their users like an embarrassing uncle. In spite of their efforts, a lot of ordinary right-wing political activism occurs on Facebook. This is one reason why the January 6 Capitol protest has been blown out of proportion: It paints ordinary speech as a problem to be regulated, and Facebook was central to organizing the protesters, peaceful and otherwise. For the media, the leadership of Facebook, and the so-called whistleblower, you are the problem to be solved.
Lest we forget, all of these platforms are businesses, and businesses exist to make money. They do that very well by maintaining quasi-monopolies in their space, making large donations to politicians, and appearing contrite and civic-minded when appearing before Congress. It’s all highly choreographed. Lately, they have done a lot to appear manageable and compliant to a ruling class that demands more and more censorship in the name of combating “misinformation” and “hate speech.” This is why all the talk mimics that of campus activists, including the obsession with “safety.”
This nomenclature is deliberate. Safety has a positive connotation. And human trafficking, child pornography, and conspiracies to commit criminal violence that occur on social media are indeed threats to safety. But safety means something very different to Haugen. She is concerned about the lack of safety she feels when she encounters people who think differently.
Describing a close friend who went down internet rabbit holes into various kinds of conspiracy thinking, she said, “I joined Facebook because someone I was incredibly close to, who was really important to me, I lost them to misinformation on the internet, and I never want anyone to feel the pain that I felt. . . . I blame more 4chan and Reddit. But he was making crazy claims about George Soros running the world economy and things like that. Things that are just super easy to invalidate.” Really?
In any case, this says a lot more about her rigid personality than it does about the universe of social media. Why did she have to drop a friend for believing stupid things? Don’t we all have disagreements with friends and family? This is just life. Most of these differences are not questions of safety. Indeed, the premise and purpose of free speech is that a great many things are debatable and benefit from scrutiny and challenge, including our own beliefs and the widely accepted beliefs of those in power.
The highly public debut of the Facebook whistleblower suggests the hidden hand of others. Asked a real question about a real solution to Facebook’s excessive power, Haugen said, “When people ask me, should we break up Facebook, I say, definitively do not break up Facebook. All you will do is starve the individual parts of resources.” Heaven forbid!
Far from speaking “truth to power,” Haugen is harmonizing with the powerful, defending their monopoly status, enormous profits, and oversized ability to influence, while asking for the government to force them to exercise even more power and manipulation over those using these platforms. Regulation over algorithms would steer all social media companies towards a uniform belief system using the same algorithmic tools Haugen spent most of her career perfecting.
The notes of this whistleblower are off key. A real whistleblower takes real risks and opposes corruption at the top, rather than aligning with those at the top to usher in a more perfect form of surveillance capitalism. She is no more blowing the whistle than Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman or others who have echoed the broader messages of the powerful, while flattering them.