On a global tour speaking about her time as a product developer at Facebook, whistleblower Frances Haugen addressed a hearing in the U.K. Parliament on legislation that would fine companies up to $24.7 million, or 10% of global profits, for failing to protect users from harmful online content
Haugen, who turned over thousands of internal Facebook documents, memos and online discussion threads to the media before quitting in May, is expected to meet with E.U. lawmakers next. “Facebook has been unwilling to accept even a little sliver of profit being sacrificed for safety,” Hauge told the Online Safety Bill committee in London.
It also seems as if Facebook is unwilling to accept a sliver of responsibility.
In a letter to employees that Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared with users, he wrote the media — and, by extension, Haugen — “misrepresents our work and our motives.”
“Most of us [internally] don’t recognize the false picture of the company,” Zuckerberg added, saying most claims made against it “make no sense.”
If Facebook is worried about being portrayed as an arrogant, uncaring, clueless and power- and money-hungry social media giant, its combative crisis PR strategy has done little to change that narrative.
But it’s not too late for Facebook to try to change it, experts say.
“Team Facebook needs to realize they have not been helping themselves, and that the strategy they’re on is not the right path,” says Curtis Sparrer, principal and cofounder at Bospar. “They need a PR intervention.”
Where to start? Facebook should change how it responds to whistleblowers and the media.
“What I am particularly perturbed by Facebook’s whole stance on this situation, and they should stop doing immediately, is complaining about the leaks and attacking the whistleblowers for their disloyalty,” says Jason Mandell, cofounder and principal at LaunchSquad. “It is kind of Trumpian to do that rather than address the issues that the leaked information is actually uncovering.”
He says the response shows Facebook doesn’t understand the role whistleblowers play for a free and independent press, one of the bedrocks of a democracy.
“The media is supposed to serve as a kind of watchdog for government, business and those in positions of power. Without whistleblowers, not as many wrongdoings or where we need to be better would come to light,” Mandell says, pointing to examples throughout history where whistleblowers brought forth truth-telling evidence.
The Facebook Files has been compared to the Panama Papers in 2016, when an anonymous leak of more than 11 million documents implicated high-profile individuals and corporations in a global tax-evasion scheme. It resulted in the launch of hundreds of criminal investigations by governments around the world and increased efforts towards fighting tax fraud.
Global regulation of social media looks to be a likely outcome of the Facebook leak, with no signs of the coverage slowing.
Last Friday, a consortium of 17 news organizations began publishing a series of articles, collectively called The Facebook Papers, based on the same documents Haugen shared with The Wall Street Journal. She has also since released other documents to the consortium.
Experts say Facebook needs to own up to its flaws or failures in the same way it does successes.
“Their platforms have enhanced and improved many people’s lives, including my own. But like Amazon and a lot of other big companies, it also does some bad,” says Mandell. “They have an opportunity now to talk about the changes they are going to make in doing more good than bad.”
But he adds that the social media giant is letting the opportunity slip by.
“I would advise them to stop trying to dissect and cherry-pick the positives of what their research shows or what they have accomplished so far. They really need to own where they have faltered,” he says. “And then come out and say, ‘This is how we are going to start making decisions, and we’re going to be guided by a set of values around what is the best thing for society as a whole.”
Sparrer agrees, and suggests Facebook also turn to the media, rather than its own platform, to communicate this shift.
“Digging in your heels and coming up for combat every time you’re criticized isn’t going to be the stance that wins the hearts and minds of the American public,” he says. “If I was advising Mark Zuckerberg, I would tell him he needs to go on Oprah, with the full Oprah treatment, during which he’s revealed as a flawed human being. And because of his flaws, the public will view him as more relatable and even likeable.”
“I don’t think Facebook has ever done a good job of that with Mark,” says Sparrer. “He needs a mea culpa moment and to say, ‘I am sorry, I screwed up and let you down. I was driven by my own ambition, but now with some clarity of thought, I can see how we need to change things...That is going to be a hard reach, however, because Mark has never really shown moments of humility.”
Experts say Facebook is unlikely to shift strategy without the leaders at the company bringing in new voices and third-party partners.
“They need to bring in outside experts to expand the conversation from just about Facebook to what we do about keeping all of social media safe,” says Justine Griffin, principal at Rasky Partners.
In partnership with children’s mental health experts, for instance, Facebook could advise families on how to protect their children from harmful content.
“The company can say that after much thought and listening to others, we have decided these are our values and responsibility in this area, and this is how we are going to move forward,” says Griffin. “Because when people are talking about the morality of your product, you have to stand for something.”
She adds that a step like this would help to change the narrative in the media, and politically.
“While in the eye of the storm, they need to do something big enough that it pauses the current conversation and helps turn the page,” she says. “A new chapter begins with something like that, not piecemeal.”
“They need to take a step outside of the bubble they are in,” agrees Mandell. “And they need to stop taking counsel from people who are highly political, such as Peter Thiel.”
The cofounder of PayPal, Thiel was an early investor in Facebook and has a seat on its board. He has been criticized for putting the pursuit of technological progress above all else, even if it’s dangerous to society.
"Given the crucial moment the company finds itself in, I would recommend the removal of any board members who may have a conflict of interest, including and especially around politics,” continues Mandell. “Zuckerberg needs a deeper and more well-rounded set of advisers, and people who are political should not be in the room. They should be guided now by what's the right thing to do for broader society regardless of how it may be perceived politically.”
Some experts suspect the decisions by Facebook’s leadership, and its PR strategy, have been clouded by its stock performance. Its stock is up 21% in 2021 despite the reputational damage to the company, and its recently reported Q3 results were better than the market expected.
“There seems to be a disconnect,” says Gene Grabowski, a partner at kglobal, a Washington, DC, comms firm. “Sinking corporate reputation isn’t translating to sinking sales, like it would for, say, a Procter & Gamble. That’s because advertisers large and small, PR firms and politicians included, continue to spend dollars on it and find the platform effective for audience outreach.”
“But what is going to happen from this is regulatory sanctions, and once that does, for Facebook first and foremost, a lot of the stock strength could be curbed,” Grabowski says. “Right now, though, it is up to market forces, and the market is quite healthy for them.”