On Sunday, October 3rd, I saw the 60 Minutes story about Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower. I was absolutely blown away in so many different aspects. I was thrown back to 2011 when I did a 60 Minutes story based upon my whistleblowing at Citigroup.
While our stories come from different industries, both situations involve manipulating people. All the similarities between our stories come down to one: Powerful people exploited those who lacked power in order to increase personal gain.
Frances Haugen was concerned about Facebook’s corporate leadership, which embraced a culture that encouraged potentially harmful actions because those actions were more profitable for the company. Facebook had an algorithm that knew the types of content the user was attracted to or had high interaction and thus selected more of the same content so that the user would interface with Facebook longer. Why would giving people what they want be a bad thing, though? If it’s what they want, then they’ll be happy.
But engagement is not always about what people want. It’s what they engage with. Engagement goes beyond likes. There is a system weighing every interaction to a post, and each interaction – likes, dislikes, cares, comments, everything – plays into the engagement number. Increased engagement means people spend more time on the platform. Extended time on the platform increases revenue for the company, so getting an emotional response is good for the bottom line. And, as Haugen said in her interview, “It’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions.”
Thus, those that had previously either sought out or engaged with hateful and divisive content were given much more hateful and divisive content, which creates an emotional response, and more engagement. The cycle continues.
This cycle didn’t stop with Facebook. The company also owns Instagram, which uses similar methods. Many younger girls sought specific topics, such as eating disorders, and were thus given more of that content, reinforcing eating disorders and even thoughts of suicide.
Internal documents show that not only did the company know what was happening, but they also continued working to ensure this would continue. To the point of turning off safety systems that had blocked misinformation in 2020.
In a response on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg said, “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.”
He goes on to say that they “have advocated for updated internet regulations for several years now. I have testified in Congress multiple times and asked them to update these regulations. I’ve written op-eds outlining the areas of regulation we think are most important related to elections, harmful content, privacy, and competition.”
Zuckerberg’s saying the internet needs oversight is a good attempt at passing the buck. It’s a “the game let me do it” kind of response that puts the blame on the people who created the system, except, in this case, he is that person. As the majority stakeholder, he is the final recipient of the passed buck.
Of course he wants to divert blame. He needs his company to look good. Jumping out with an admission would not maintain the user numbers the company needs to remain profitable.
This is similar to what Citigroup had to say about my allegations.
I saw management ignoring their own internal warnings about selling mortgages and mortgage-backed securities to investors. Citi was giving their representations to the purchasers of these securities that even though the mortgages were originated by other banks and mortgage companies, they followed Citigroup’s own mortgage lending policies. As I issued many high-level warnings throughout the company that these representations were false, the business model of selling these defective mortgages was exceptionally profitable, throwing off significant incentive compensation to all management, and thus the company increased dramatically the selling of the billions of dollars of defective mortgages to make more profit. I kept issuing warnings for eighteen months and finally sent a detailed warning to Robert Rubin, Chairman of the Board, and the other executive officers, when I was stripped of my responsibilities and told not to come back to the bank.
Frances Haugen testified before Congress on Monday, telling them about her findings and sharing documents she took from the company. And she received enthusiastic and positive responses from Congress that additional regulation was needed to protect the public from Facebook’s mismanagement.
I also testified before the SEC in 2008 and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) in 2010 and, once again, the circumstances were somewhat different. The harm that Citigroup did was primarily related to their investors, including the many pension funds who purchased their securities, not the billions of people worldwide that deal with Facebook, with both the SEC and the FCIC burying my testimony and trying to hide it from public scrutiny. And no one was held accountable and there was no real attempt to further regulate these banking practices.
I have been where Haugen is. I have endured what she will likely endure, if she hasn’t already. Being labeled as a “disgruntled employee,” industry backlash, and questionable career stability are only a few of the rewards we whistleblowers get for shining light on wrongdoing.
Even with protections, whistleblowers suffer for standing up for what is right. Some of us go on to speak about our experiences, others teach, and still others change professions altogether. The one thing that most of us have in common is a moment in which we had to make a choice between what is convenient – going along to get along – and what our ethical codes tell us is right – shining a light on unethical behavior.
Both Haugen’s and my experiences boil down to the powerful few exploiting those without power. And powerful people will always try to exploit the powerless for the sake of profit. As someone said about divisive content, it’s just human nature. But will we, as a society, continue to allow the powerful few to exploit the masses? How long will we allow this to continue?