BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
FRANCES HAUGEN I'm here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Between a Senate whistleblower hearing and a six-hour service outage, the PR disasters keep mounting for Facebook. Also on this week's show, what ails the tech giant so much that when its own researchers tell it it's doing wrong, it just goes on doing it?
KEVIN ROOSE What really keeps them up at night is this idea that no one wants to use the products anymore, or at least know one that they care about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, how an enormous information leak reveals a shadowy offshore economy that isn't always so...offshore.
GERARD RYLE What we're seeing with the Pandora Papers is that the US itself has become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tax haven in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. To say that this week was a rough one for Facebook would be a bit of an understatement.
NEWS REPORT Massive and mysterious a global outage taking down Facebook around the world, along with Instagram and WhatsApp, which Facebook owns. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then, there was the whistleblower.
NEWS REPORT Her name is Frances Haugen. That is a fact that Facebook has been anxious to know since last month, when an anonymous former employee filed complaints with federal law enforcement.
NEWS REPORT A former product manager at the social network telling 60 Minutes when she joined the company, she wanted to focus on combating misinformation. But after a little more than a year, she says she became so disillusioned she filed an anonymous complaint with the FCC and provided thousands of pages of internal company research...[END CLIP MONTAGE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After revealing her identity Sunday. Haugen testified before Congress on Tuesday, and she didn't mince her words there, either.
FRANCES HAUGEN I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us, but I'm here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. The company's leadership won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Haugen's testimony came on the heels of last week's hearing, where senators questioned Facebook's safety chief Antigone Davis. These hearings have allowed for a nuanced, in-depth conversation about social media in Congress, marking just how far politicians have come in their understanding since 2006, when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens referred to the internet as...
TED STEVENS This is a series of tools. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the years since, the senators haven't exactly been known for their keen technological understanding, as evidenced in the occasional viral sound bite.
SENATOR Let's say I'm emailing about Black Panther within WhatsApp. Do I get a whatsapp-- do I get a Black Panther banner ad?
TREVOR NOAH OK, first of all, you don't email in WhatsApp. That's like saying 'I'll DM you from my fax machine.' [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE At this point, it's become something of a trope. Congressional hearings led by tech backward politicians with no hope of ever meaningfully regulating the industry. The futility is baked in. So when Senator Blumenthal, one of the politicians leading last week's hearing, made a flub of his own, it ricocheted around right on cue. Here he is, questioning Antigone Davis:
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL Will you commit to ending finsta
ANTIGONE DAVIS Senator, again let me explain. We don't actually - we don't actually do - do 'finsta'. What 'finsta' refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy. An account where they can interact just with their, with a smaller group of friends.
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL Ah, 'finsta' is one of your....
ANTIGONE DAVIS That said we've actually...
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL Finsta's one of your products or services. We're not talking about Google or Apple. It's Facebook, correct? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's funny, right? Blumenthal doesn't understand what a 'finsta' is.
NEWS REPORT But beware of senators trying to understand technology. He did the best he could, but still there was a little bit of a fail in there.
Just ask your kids. Just ask your kids [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Except that before his decontextualized flub, Blumenthal actually offered a pretty good description.
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL Finsta's are fake Instagram accounts. Finsta's aren't his secret second accounts. Finsta's often are intended to avoid parents oversight. Facebook depends on teens for growth. Facebook knows that teens often are the most tech savvy in the household, but Facebook also knows that nearly every teen in the United States has an Instagram account. It can only add more users as fast as there are new 13-year olds. [END CLIP]
MAKENA KELLY For the most part. When you look at moments like what Blumenthal said, will you commit to ending 'finsta?' It comes on the heels of really poorly worded questions and answers about technology dating all the way back to the 90s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Makena Kelly is a policy reporter for The Verge, who wrote that focusing on flubs doesn't reflect today's Congress, at least not entirely, and could have the unintended consequence of working against needed regulation of social media.
MAKENA KELLY Now, the reason the finsta thing that we saw last week went viral was because it was believable, with this vast history behind it. So I don't like to shame people getting upset with a Congress that has a difficult time passing infrastructure legislation, doing things like that. But it does at the same time, undermine this Congress's ability to actually regulate platforms like Facebook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How?
MAKENA KELLY When you look at the question that he asked in the context that it came in, he was really identifying a serious problem. When kids use these secondary private accounts, they can sometimes get caught up in really toxic communities. Issues like pro-anorexia content. You start interacting with that content and then your discover page becomes not pictures of your friends and family, not just recipes. It gets hyper-focused on this really harmful behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're saying that fun with flubs that the media have is a distraction with real world consequences.
MAKENA KELLY When something like the Finsta flop happens like it did last week, it becomes the Twitter moment. People are retweeting it. They're quote-tweeting it, they're dunking on this senator, and that paints the portrait that these lawmakers are totally out of their depth. And it builds this narrative that Facebook shouldn't be governed by these types of people and that they shouldn't be on the receiving end of regulation because these are the wrong people to do it. And that's the narrative that gets built, which really wasn't the true story behind what happened on Thursday.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that this was one of the better hearings that you've heard overall. And there were informed questions from other senators and informed conclusions. For instance, Senator Ed Markey concluded that if Facebook has taught us anything, it's that self-regulation isn't an option.
MAKENA KELLY Over the last couple of days, we have seen lawmakers reintroducing legislation, crafting new legislation and even threatening to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg to provide more testimony at a later date. So there is action happening. Not just behind the scenes, but in front of us when we watch these hearings,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Markey and Blumenthal reintroduced the Kids Act, which would place new limits on the types of content for apps targeted to kids under the age of 16. Josh Hawley introduced a bill that would allow parents to sue if they can prove that something on the internet caused bodily or mental injuries to children.
MAKENA KELLY That's exactly what happens. In the aftermath, we have seen a slew of new legislation introduced, and of course, legislation is only one thing. You can put bills out on the docket and send them to lawmakers. But until those Democratic bills get Republican co-sponsors, and until those Republican bills get Democratic co-sponsors and start moving through the committee process and actually look like they're viable, that's when I think we'll really get to the point where it seems like something will happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And also, in terms of this hearing, you were hearing a lot more about algorithms that you did before, how dopamine is leveraged for more clicks, which creates a more rageful online environment and so forth. Stuff that any of us who have covered this would have known for years, but it was fairly new to hear this discussion on the Hill.
MAKENA KELLY That's exactly right. And when you look at the hearings before it, the one-word Mark Zuckerberg came in for the first time and had to explain how the company makes its money.
MARK ZUCKERBERG Senator, we run ads.
SENATOR I see. [END CLIP]
MAKENA KELLY This hearing really marked a moment. They have come an extremely long way, and I think we do need to recognize that instead of goofing on them all the time, even though that is a lot of fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can we expect that these efforts, that legislation will actually make a difference because they're not law yet?
MAKENA KELLY You know, when I talked to Amy Klobuchar last week who was at the hearing, who also, you know, is doing a really big antitrust investigation, it seems like lawmakers are focused on some kind of multifaceted approach. Looking at content algorithms, but also power in competition in antitrust. And when you're trying to attack an issue as big as one of the most valuable and innovative companies in the world, it gets really, really difficult to craft these rules and think of things in the long term.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Facebook people were on the hill first to defend themselves against the whistleblower's documents. And then the whistleblower came.
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL I'd like to thank our witness, Frances Haugen. [END CLIP]
MAKENA KELLY The thing about the hearings that we've seen over the past couple of years has been we've either brought in some executive from Facebook who is there to deflect questions and describe how good Facebook is. And then we also have other hearings, right where they bring people in from civic society and experts, people from Georgetown Law to kind of describe, well, you know, this is how we really need to get things done and this is how regulation should happen. And at both of those hearings, people just end up yelling at each other and they get upset. And what I thought was really interesting about the Facebook whistleblower hearing on Tuesday with Frances Haugen was that she embodied both of those types of hearings in one person. An expert from the inside who has internal knowledge about Facebook and its structure, and also someone who knows the issues front and back.
FRANCES HAUGEN Until the incentives change. Facebook will not change. [END CLIP]
MAKENA KELLY Who has prescriptions and ideas of how to fix the company and then when she faces hard questions from lawmakers, unlike Mark Zuckerberg or Monica Bickert or whoever else Facebook puts on TV to defend the company, she will answer the questions straightforward rather than dodging them. And I thought that was a significant step forward for any congressional investigation that's happened so far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did both sides of the aisle trust her?
MAKENA KELLY That was my read. It seemed like everyone was very excited to have her there, were very excited to follow up with her later. Throughout the course of the hearing, John Thune, a Republican, Jerry Moran, a Republican, a couple of Democrats were telling her and each other, 'well, it's time for us to get to work.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
MAKENA KELLY Of course. Always happy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Makena Kelly is a policy reporter for The Verge. Coming up is Facebook a digital colossus or an ailing Goliath scrambling for relevance? How about both? This is On the Media.