Facebook wants to move its business model towards the metaverse, that virtual future in which we will all hang out online through headsets and pretend it isn’t weird.
The trouble is, we already appear to live in an alternate reality created by communications specialists with highly political agendas. Just look at the clearly PR-orchestrated Online Safety vs Facebook story which the media is playing out before our non-digital eyes.
This week’s protagonist is Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who appeared yesterday in parliament to give evidence to MPs scrutinising the Online Harms Bill. That is the bill through which the government says it intends to regulate social media companies to stop online hate, bullying, terrorist radicalisation and so on. And here is Frances, telling MPs that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) is a playground for bullies and puts profits above child safety.
Outside parliament, a rather expensive looking ‘art installation’ has appeared. It shows Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook owner, surfing his hydrofoil board on a wave of cash and waving a flag with the message: ‘I know we harm kids but I don’t care.’
Look at the news photographs, scan the reports, and Haugen seems to be exactly what supporters of the Online Harms Bill want her to be: a ‘whistleblower’, a Goodie, a Facebook insider who saw the company’s wickedness up close and decided in good conscience to blow the story wide open. We all lap such stories up, especially when they involve the powerful technology companies which increasingly dominate our lives. It’s Truth Tellers and Righteous Journalists taking down the Vile Tech Overlords.
Dig just a little deeper and you see something different. Haugen isn’t just someone speaking ‘truth to power’. She is the frontwoman of a PR campaign pushed by the Democratic party in America; a campaign that appears to have been exquisitely timed to support a new government push to censor and control communication.
There are echoes of Russiagate here, the massive transatlantic story that Russia somehow hacked democracy in 2016. We see again parliamentary committee hearings serving as theatres for far more powerful factions to advance their agendas. Indeed, Facebookgate, the story we media users are today consuming, is in some ways perhaps the next chapter to Russiagate.
It’s all somewhat mysterious. What helps is to know a bit about Frances Haugen, who worked at Google and Pinterest before joining Facebook in 2019.
According to Ben Smith’s media column in the New York Times, Haugen met Jeff Horwitz, a tech-industry reporter at the Wall Street Journal, in December 2020. She decided to trust him with tens of thousands of highly sensitive Facebook documents. This turned into the Facebook Files, a sensational and well-packaged WSJ investigative series that revealed much of what Haugen described to the British parliament yesterday.
At some point, the Facebook Files story appears to have been taken over by a communications group run by Bill Burton, former deputy White House press secretary under Barack Obama. With Haugen, Burton’s firm approached journalists from 17 other media titles to form a network of the most powerful American media companies dedicated to spreading apparently embarrassing news about Facebook.
This isn’t exactly old-fashioned reportage, then. It is more a group of journos being led by the nose by a highly politicised consultancy that works in tandem with the Democrats. That is rum, to put it mildly, and should make us all pause before we swallow the straightforward ‘whistleblower’ talk coming out of Westminster.
Haugen claims to be independently wealthy. ‘I’m fine because I did buy crypto at the right time,’ she told Smith. She has moved to Puerto Rico, apparently because of her health, though she joins lots of other people who have made money in crypto and moved there because of the territory’s generous capital gains tax breaks.
But she has accepted help from Mr Burton, who is funded in no small part by the billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay. Omidyar reportedly backs a number of pro-transparency groups, including one called Whistleblower Aid, which is led by a lawyer called Mark Zaid, who funnily enough has called for the imprisonment of rather less establishment-friendly whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
Omidyar seems to have been a fairly normal enlightened philanthropist, at least until 2016, when he became radicalised in horror at the election of Donald Trump. As Glenn Greenwald, who used to work for him, writes: ‘Omidyar proved himself to be a deeply political and partisan person by devoting himself with unlimited energy to opposing the person who was elected in 2016 by the American public to be president.’ Omidyar put considerable resources behind the Russiagate story, which involved blaming Facebook for allowing Russian disinformation on its platforms. So it seems the latest allegations against Facebook are part of a long campaign to control the flow of information on the company’s various platforms.
But before we all start feeling sorry for Mark Zuckerberg, let’s remember that Haugen’s point is not to make Facebook less powerful but more. She told the US Senate that she is against breaking up Facebook, as many observers are now calling for. Haugen talks passionately about combating foreign ‘espionage’ and promoting ‘civic integrity’, apparently at Facebook’s expense. What she wants though is for Facebook to work in tandem with the government to monitor speech on its platforms. She actually backs censorship and (the right kind) of spying. She is, in other words, a very convenient whistleblower.
It’s worth noting that Haugen’s job was at Facebook’s ‘Civic Integrity Unit’, which was heavily involved in supressing dangerous or misleading content in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. A cynic might say that the unit’s mission was far more partisan: it was set up to undo the shame of 2016 by helping to stop President Trump’s re-election and apparently disbanded soon after Joe Biden won the election. It was the Integrity Unit that reportedly helped suppress the New York Post’s scandalous Hunter Biden laptop story, which might have damaged the Democratic nominee if it hadn’t been so totally hushed up.
Haugen speaks eloquently and conveys a sense of great urgency. ‘When an oil spill happens, it doesn’t make it harder for us to regulate oil companies,’ she told parliament yesterday. 'Right now, Facebook is closing the door on us being able to act. We have a slight window of time to regain people control over AI.' She says the ‘global south is in danger’ — by which she means that gullible people in poor countries are more vulnerable to online disinformation. She suggests ‘someone like me’ to work on a regulatory oversight board to monitor Facebook, thus potentially arrogating huge power to herself.
To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest Haugen is not sincere in her alarm about the sinister side of Facebook. Everybody knows that Facebook, with its immense power and addictiveness, causes a large amount of social harm. But it does seem odd that it is Facebook — the major tech company that seems most willing to confront the gremlins of its business model — in the crosshairs of governments across the world. Why is there not, say, a more concerted effort from western authorities to tackle TikTok, a social media platform that, unlike Facebook, is increasingly popular? TikTok is still Chinese-owned and its algorithms have almost certainly been tuned to suit the national interests of the Chinese Communist party. Google, meanwhile, is so all-powerful that it seems to just brush aside all talk of its dastardly schemes to monopolise online advertising.
No, it’s always Facebook, for some reason, in the news, and it’s always highly politicised groups pushing the tech censorship agenda while claiming to act only for the public good. And the agenda doesn’t even seem to threaten Facebook and Big Tech’s bottom line in any meaningful way. Enquiring minds should wonder why exactly that is.