What's Behind Facebook Whistleblower's Call for 'Reining In' the Silicon Valley Giant?
07:45 GMT 26.10.2021 (Updated: 18:23 GMT 03.11.2022)
Newly released internal documents indicate that politics was often at the centre of decision-making at Facebook. While the whistleblower who leaked the docs is calling for reining the tech giant in, academics Dr Binoy Kampmark and Joseph Oliver Boyd-Barrett are wondering whether Mark Zuckerberg is getting sucked into a new political game.
Facebook "whitelisted" Breitbart to avoid a "fight" with former White House strategist Stephen Bannon, a new whistleblower told The Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had kept Breitbart's news about the George Floyd protests on its News Tab feature despite earlier intent to silence the conservative source by the tech company’s employees. Internal exchanges revealed that Facebook's management feared public blowback.
Last month, the WSJ kicked off a series of exposures concerning Facebook's policies, one of which was XCheck, a programme allowing certain types of users, including celebrities or politicians
, to do whatever they want on the platform without any ramifications. The tool reportedly protected 5.8 million people in 2020, according to the report.
"Facebook does not, in of itself, have a political preference", suggests Dr Binoy Kampmark, senior lecturer at the School of Global, Urban, and Social Studies at RMIT University. "Surveillance capitalism is its true preference. Data harvesting and monetisation is the goal. The politics only matters in so far as it feeds this model. From the start, Zuckerberg's creepy, skin-crawling model of dystopian surveillance was based on making money and satisfying the ineradicable weaknesses of a socially inept character".
Facebook has repeatedly come under criticism from both sides of the US political aisle. Back in 2020, Donald Trump and conservatives lashed out at the company for "censoring" and "labelling" right-wing voices
, while Democrats and left-leaning activists criticised the Silicon Valley giant for "protecting white supremacy" and "allowing false content" amid the George Floyd protests
. A group of activists including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League lambasted
Facebook for including conservative outlets The Daily Caller and Breitbart as one of the tech giant's fact-checking partners and a "trusted source", respectively.
Although Mark Zuckerberg originally had a fairly comfortable relationship with Trump, following the latter's election defeat and the subsequent Capitol riots, the politician was no longer seen as "a billable character"
, according to Kampmark. The Facebook CEO moved away from "hyper-partisan" pages in favour of "official news sources such as CNN".
However, the Silicon Valley giant has again come under bipartisan scrutiny following a series of exposures by American data engineer Frances Haugen. She disclosed tens of thousands of Facebook's internal documents to The Wall Street Journal in 2021 and the congressional Securities and Exchange Commission last month.
25 October 2021, 11:00 GMT
Is Facebook Whistleblower Impartial?
On 25 October, Haugen, a Facebook data scientist-turned-whistleblower, testified before the UK Parliament, which is currently looking into PM Boris Johnson's Online Safety Bill. The new legislation would obligate social media companies to protect users or face substantial fines of up to 10% of their global revenue.
Frances Haugen called upon Europeans to pass new laws in order to rein in social media networks. According to Politico, Haugen will also be invited to the European Parliament.
"First off, we have to wonder who exactly Haugen is and what she represents", insists Joseph Oliver Boyd-Barrett, professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University.
Boyd-Barrett cites alternative media sources which claim that the Facebook whistleblower "was cultivated and legally represented by an organization led by former intelligence insiders with close ties to the US national security state".
Haugen is backed by Whistleblower Aid, founded by a national security lawyer, Mark Zaid, former State Department official John Tye, ex-CIA and Pentagon official Andrew Bakaj, and veteran US government information warrior, Libby Liu, according to Boyd-Barrett.
She is also said to be a member of "the little-known Facebook 'threat intelligence unit' where [she] claimed to have worked is staffed by former CIA, NSA, and Pentagon operatives", the academic notes. Despite Zaid running Whistleblower Aid, he is known to be one of the most vocal critics of actual whistleblower Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
6 October 2021, 08:22 GMT
In addition to this, Politico recently revealed
that Haugen is receiving funding from tech billionaire and media mogul Pierre Omidyar. Independent American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has worked with Omidyar for years, has warned in his latest op-ed that the media mogul "is not some apolitical or neutral guardian of good internet governance". Instead, the billionaire is "a highly politicised and ideological actor with very strong views on society's most debated questions", according to the journalist. In particular, Omidyar has long been an ardent proponent of the Trump-Russia "collusion" story and used to be highly critical of the former president.
The latest scandal resembles nothing as much as the previous one involving Cambridge Analytica, according to Boyd-Barrett. "Facebook's willingness following this scandal to invest ever more heavily in 'content moderation', appears to have had negative consequences for the volume of traffic to many left-of-centre and, possibly, right-of-centre, information and commentary websites critical of the existing power structure", he says, suggesting that the latest exposure could lead to tightening the screws on independent voices.
"The excitement about alleged cultural ramifications of the Facebook business model seems conveniently to obscure the political dimensions", Boyd-Barrett warns. "There can be little debate on the other hand as to the toxic character of a mainstream media system that is essentially controlled by for-profit corporate and plutocratic power, whose business models place profit about public interest, which regularly collude with intelligence agencies and the Deep State, and in the management of which the public sphere has little or no real controlling voice".