Democracy & Disinformation

Q&A: Real Facebook Oversight Board member on Facebook’s new whistleblower scandal

Gelo Gonzales
Q&A: Real Facebook Oversight Board member on Facebook’s new whistleblower scandal

JESSICA J. GONZALEZ

FreePress.net

'The goal is no longer to save Facebook – Facebook is beyond hope. The goal now is to save democracy,' says the Real Facebook Oversight Board

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic integrity team, will testify in a US Senate hearing on Tuesday, October 5, 10 am, Eastern time or Tuesday, 10 pm, Philippine time.

A summary of the hearing as well as a livestream feed can be found on this US Senate page.

Haugen recently revealed internal documents that became the basis of a series of Wall Street Journal articles that showed Facebook knew and ignored the harms of its product, specifically Instagram and its negative effects on teens.

It’s damning in the sense that this is concrete evidence that Facebook has real knowledge of the harms of its platforms but is purposely ignoring to fix these harms.

Facebook has resisted external oversight, and acts against dissenting voices strongly, not unlike strongman figures who have learned to weaponize the platform. Just last August, the company banned New York University researchers who were studying how political ads are targeted, and had the website of staunch Facebook critic group Real Facebook Oversight Board (RFOB) taken down.

Here, we interview Jessica J. González, one of the members of the said group and is also the Co-CEO of FreePress.net.

In response to Haugen revealing her identity, González wrote the statement for RFOB: “Today’s new revelations from brave Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen show what the Real Facebook Oversight Board has been saying for a year – Facebook’s actions must be met urgently with real independent oversight, accountability, and justice.”

“The goal is no longer to save Facebook – Facebook is beyond hope. The goal now is to save democracy,” she added.

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is also a member of the RFOB.

Frances Haugen says she wants to fix the company or to help prompt change, but the RFOB is far more progressive in its stance, saying “There’s no saving Facebook, and Facebook is beyond hope.” And that the goal now is to save democracy. Is there a middle ground here between Haugen’s stance and the RFOB’s?

Jessica: I think the time is now for decisive action from policymakers around the world, in particular policymakers in the United States, who really let Facebook off the hook without any real accountability. We need Congress to legislate. We need the Federal Trade Commission to regulate and oversee Facebook. 

What we learned today isn’t really surprising to many of us who have closely tracked how Facebook has behaved for the past decade or so. It just really confirms what we suspected and backs it up with receipts. I think the message that the Real Facebook Oversight Board is sending is important – that we cannot rely on Facebook to guard the henhouse here. 

Facebook will not and has refused to police itself. And so we actually need the government to step in and hold the company accountable for the harms that it has caused and to prevent it from continuing to perpetuate the harms. 

Based on some of the documents that Frances Haugen revealed, we also know that Facebook has lied or seriously misled the US Congress, sometimes under oath. That obviously needs to be looked into further. If I had a dollar for every time Facebook executives or employees told me that they were doing their best to stomp out hate, conspiracy theories, and lies, I’d be a wealthy woman. But alas here I am, not a wealthy woman, and continuing to do this work here. 

We’re not going to eradicate Facebook in a day. Certainly, it needs to be held to account here in the United States and around the world by the governments. However, we also need Facebook to be a better actor – a more accountable actor. 

While I wouldn’t say there’s a middle ground, I think we need all of the above. We need Facebook to do an about-face. We need this newfound transparency that we have about Facebook’s inner workings and the extent that they knew about the breadth and depth of the harms they were causing. We also need them to take decisive action – to ban white supremacists, to ban conspiracy theorists, to invest in a way we’ve been calling on them to invest for years now in the moderation necessary to root out hate and lies. 

We’ve been calling for Facebook to do this. We can’t just say, “Congress needs to act. The government needs to act.” We also need Facebook to act. Just because Congress starts a proceeding, doesn’t mean it happens overnight. 

I’m very skeptical that Facebook will act absent government action. We’ve seen them time and again do very small changes when it comes to their rules. But what they really need is a complete overhaul. And, we, as people trying to push for good public policy, really need to look underneath the hood at why hate and lies are so profitable. We need to look at those business models, and that’s the root of the problem here. 

[Prior to the interview] you were talking about how these are supposed to be liberal companies or progressive companies – so what happened here?

Well, the truth of the matter here, is that these [tech companies] are [still] companies operating in a capitalist system that have taken advantage of the fact that they’re completely unregulated, unlegislated, and unaccountable to anyone. 

We need to do better as policymakers. And Facebook certainly needs to do better. But it’s not going to move unless there are real teeth to holding it accountable. So far, we don’t have that. 

The Facebook Oversight Board is full of brilliant people but doesn’t have any real power or scope to take on the problems that Facebook is facing. 

What is Facebook’s bottom line going to look like if we are able to successfully complete this overhaul of the platform? 

Jessica: Listen, I think Facebook can still be a profitable company without completely destroying democracy and propping up authoritarians or people who are pursuing white ethno-state. 

It’s making a choice here to put lavish, lavish wealth and excess over the public good.

There are tons of regulated industries in the United States and around the world that are still profitable industries, right? The telecommunications industry, the cable industry, big pharma – there are lots of problems in those regulatory schemes as well. I mean no one is asking for Mark Zuckerberg to be poor. 

And like the tobacco companies, right? They were less regulated before, and now it’s just Facebook doing the same tactic that big tobacco used to do by hiding the harms.

Jessica: Right. 

Let’s put into context this latest scandal in relation to all the other big scandals that Facebook has faced. What is the significance of Haugen speaking out now?

Jessica: The scope of her revelations is just so broad. You’re asking to compare it to Cambridge Analytica – I mean that was of course a huge revelation, a huge look under the hood. But here, it’s really showing what many of us have suspected for years, which is widescale obfuscation of the real facts from the public, Congress, regulators, and the press. It’s showing the depth of what Facebook knew. 

We’ve known for years that it’s a hate and lie profiteer, and we suspected that executives knew that and decided to continue with this business model anyhow.

But now we know for sure. We know that they know – that they were causing concrete harm and decided not to act. That in itself is just a tremendous revelation – something we’ve long suspected and have been trying to call public attention to. 

Now, there’s really no denying that Facebook has been lying. It has been misleading the public about the harms that it’s causing. It feels like that moment when we learned that big tobacco was concealing studies that showed tobacco causes death. 

I’m thinking back to when the president [Joe Biden] said, “You’re killing people.” And how Facebook took great issue with that. But I knew they were killing people. 

That’s why they were so defensive. 

Jessica: They made a big thing about it. There’s just no shame. Just nothing. 

Then here comes Mark Zuckerberg amid all of these things happening – he goes to post on his wall and says, “Look, it’s one thing for the media to say false things about my work but it’s crossing the line to say that I’m riding an electric surfboard when that video clearly shows a hydrofoil that I’m pumping with my own legs.” He’s taking aim at the New York Times. 

It kind of feels like Mark is not treating this seriously. I mean with all his other posts – he’s been posting videos of him using the Ray Ban sunglasses and him fencing with a US fencer. And just 5 hours ago [roughly around the same time as the whistleblower revelation] he posted a video of him and Priscilla sailing. It just looks like he’s not taking this seriously. 

What are your thoughts on that? 

Jessica: I mean I’m disgusted. This is a person who’s out of touch with reality and what life is like for regular people who don’t have billions of dollars to buffer them from the real world. It’s really hard to watch. I don’t think he’s taking it seriously. 

I met Mark Zuckerberg about a year and a half ago, where we went into detail about the harms his platform was causing. And in a real earnest face, he told us he’s working as hard as he can. We knew that was…I’m trying not to cuss. 

We knew he was lying then, and he was putting on a show. I don’t think he’s taking it seriously. We saw there was a report just a few days ago, saying Facebook is going on a PR offensive. I started to see the video showing up in my Facebook feed. I got one the other day showing me all of Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic endeavors. And it was very clear what was happening there. 

It’s propaganda. 

Jessica: Yeah. I mean they’re the experts, right? 

It’s happening here again in the Philippines. In 2016, it happened with Donald Trump in the US, right? Now the son of a dictator, Bongbong Marcos, has plans to run for president, and a big part of paving that road back to power is through Facebook – and how Facebook has allowed to prosper these metanarratives on Martial Law, and that [Ferdinand] Marcos was a good president. And so now [they’re] back.

We just have a few months now before the elections. We’re not the US. We’re not even sure if Facebook will prioritize us. I’m hoping just a little bit, they can help us out. But you know Facebook better than anyone. 

Jessica: I’m worried for you all. The elections are in May, right?

One of the things that the leak revealed that I’m working on quite a bit is how underinvested Facebook is in non-English.

Disinformation is of the things that Haugen helped further reveal. Facebook has only really invested in English and French. Outside of that, they don’t have the AI tools and the staff they need. Even if they had the political will to tamp down on abuses by powerful authoritarian leaders, they don’t have the tools to do so. 

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That’s why we’ve been furious for almost a year now. They have just failed to answer it all. For instance, simple questions like, “How many people are in charge of Spanish language content moderation?” “Who’s in charge of that there?” Here in the US, we have 40 million people who speak Spanish. I’m concerned about that. 

This [kind of disinformation] already happened in Myanmar with genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, and now it’s happening again in the Philippines.

Jessica: I mean it’s remarkable, right? The UN found that Facebook played a role in the genocide in Myanmar. I mean I don’t know how these people sleep at night. If I knew that was the case, I would shut it down until I knew I could figure out that I would not be helping or playing a role in mass atrocities. 

One of my questions here is actually, “Is it really money and power that fuel Facebook’s morally bankrupt decision-making?” Sometimes I feel like it’s not just money. Are they really the devil? Is there somehow a greater force behind Facebook than money and power? 

Jessica: I mean I’ve met Mark and Sheryl once, and I don’t know them well. But I think it’s greed, power, and we know Mark Zuckerberg really lacks depth in his human rights analysis. He talks about the First Amendment and free speech as if there’s not a balancing of freedoms and rights that we need to be thinking about here. He lacks depth on this issue conveniently. It’s his responsibility to have depth. 

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It’s like he never grew out of his college, dorm-room phase. 

Jessica: Yeah, but he’s not a kid anymore. He’s a grown-up and he has a responsibility. He’s a powerful grown-up. 

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Senate hearing with Haugen?

Jessica: I’m looking forward to hearing more. I’m excited about what comes out of this. What does the Senate do next? They’ve had Mark Zuckerberg hearing after hearing and they’ve heard talking point after talking point, but now they have real hard data about the harms that Facebook has caused to the American public and beyond. And it’s time for them to take action. 

I’m excited about this as an opportunity for Congress to learn more about what’s happening and start to build a real action plan to hold Facebook accountable. 

You know, as much as I think we need government action, I also think that transparency about Facebook’s systems is incredibly valuable and important. It’s important to us as activists. What I’ve seen in the absence of government regulation in past years is that Facebook changes corporate policies only in response to bad press – never for any other reason other than them getting beat up in the press cycle. 

I think we need something more sustainable than that because we’re not going to have a Haugen or Cambridge Analytica every day. That’s why I think we need the regulation. But I also think it’s an important opportunity for us to be demanding more from Facebook.

I hope that something happens before our elections here, just speaking as a Filipino.

Jessica: They have to stop giving powerful leaders a break. If powerful leaders – no matter where they’re from – are telling lies, are using their platform to put other people’s lives in danger, and are undermining democracy, public safety, and health, they need to be banned from the platform. 

Aside from taking Trump down – it took a violent insurrection on US grounds. I hope that this is an impetus for them to do more about all authoritarian leaders across the globe. 

Have any plans to set up a Real YouTube Oversight Board? 

Jessica: A Real YouTube Oversight Board? We need to. They’re also terrible. 

They haven’t been called to the US Senate right? For some reason, they’ve been able to avoid that.

Jessica: Yeah. Well, their lobbying shop has been around longer than Facebook’s. And they’ve probably donated a little bit more. Yeah, I think they really need to be next. They’re a real problem.

Alright, Jessica. Thank you for the time and I hope we get to talk again in the future. 

Jessica: Likewise and thank you, Angelo. – Rappler.com