After a searing “60 Minutes” exposé with an internal whistle-blower, Facebook and its subsidiaries suffered two major outages in one week, further tarnishing the social media behemoth’s reputation.
The recent turmoil surrounding Facebook stems from Frances Haugen, an Iowa native and Harvard-educated former employee of the tech giant. Haugen, who previously had managerial roles for Google, Yelp and Pinterest, was highly sought after by Facebook. She agreed to join Facebook under the condition that she would work to stop the spread of misinformation on the platform.
For just under two years, Haugen served as a product manager for Facebook’s civic integrity team. However, she left the company after her division was dissolved. Seeing her role in the company diminish just after the 2020 presidential election, Haugen was disappointed with the lack of attention given to correcting misinformation and removing dangerous content. Just months after the civic integrity division was dissolved, the Jan. 6 insurrection on the nation’s Capitol occurred, with Facebook being used to gather and unify insurrectionists.
Before Haugen left Facebook, she used her credentials to get access to thousands of pages of internal company research. The documents she copied revealed disturbing evidence suggesting that Facebook knew that their products caused harm to society, yet they chose to continue operating their company in the same way.
Haugen provided these documents to the Wall Street Journal in September of 2021, resulting in The Facebook Files, a bombshell series of articles examining the most troubling of Haugen’s provided information. However, just four weeks after Haugen anonymously gave The Journal thousands of Facebook documents, the whistle-blower made herself known to the public after appearing on “60 Minutes” on Oct. 4.
On the show, Haugen shed light on research that showed how Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary, had negative effects on mental health, specifically for female teenage users. For example, an internal study revealed that around 13.5% of teenage girls claimed that Instagram made thoughts of suicide worse. Research relating to Facebook’s capacity to increase violence and spread more hate was also discussed in the episode.
Haugen’s plan of attack against Facebook seemed to be quite methodically planned out. Her “60 Minutes” piece aired just two days before her Oct. 5th congressional testimony with the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection. However, on Monday, a new development with Facebook arose: their products were unusable for six hours.
WhatsApp, Instagram and their parent company, Facebook, hold a combined number of about 3.5 billion users, close to half the world’s population. Beginning at 10:40 a.m. and lasting for over five hours, none of these users could access the apps they have grown accustomed to. It is rare to see a company of Facebook’s stature (a nearly $1 trillion Market Cap) struggle with technical difficulties for an extended period like this.
Facebook claims that communication between their data centers was interrupted due to changes on their routers, which manage how traffic is handled in their network. Facebook claims that no user data was compromised during their downtime.
This outage wreaked havoc on Facebook’s headquarters, with several employees not being able to gain access in their offices due to their security credentials not working. The entire situation was resolved when a team was able to reset Facebook servers in Santa Clara, California.
Senior Vishnu Challa is heavily interested in the technology world and plans to work in Silicon Valley as a programmer in the future. Challa looked at the outage from a computer science perspective and is cautiously skeptical about its root cause. “For any large system like this, it’s bound to go down at some point, he said. However, he is also aware that Facebook has a poor track record. “It’s feasible that it wasn’t just an accident. It’s worth looking into as Facebook has hidden things from the public before,” he continued.
During Haugen’s Senate hearing, she attracted bipartisan support for tightening restrictions on Facebook. Haugen reiterated many of the arguments in her “60 Minutes” piece before the Senate. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” Haugen testified before a deeply captivated panel led by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal.
In her hearing, Haugen described two clear steps for politicians to follow in order to crack down on Facebook’s harmful elements: opening up Facebook for outside research and regulating algorithms that place dramatic, emotional content in front of users to increase engagement. The panel of Senators seemed to react positively to the hearing, with Senator Blumenthal being particularly motivated to take action against Facebook.
Interestingly enough, in a recent Facebook post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rebutted many of Haugen’s arguments but agreed with Haugen’s claim that tech giants need to be regulated by the government. “I don’t believe private companies should make all of the decisions on their own. That’s why we have advocated for updated internet regulations for several years now,” Zuckerburg wrote.
When Facebook’s public image could not seem to get any worse, they suffered yet another outage on Friday, Oct. 9th. While this outage only lasted for a couple of hours, two back-to-back instances of technical failure seemed suspicious to many. Some are skeptical of the fact that Facebook’s apps were twice unusable for extended periods, especially at a time when company practices are being scrutinized by the media and government.
Facebook shareholders also have reason to be displeased. From mid-September to mid-October, Facebook’s share value has fallen over 12%, over three times more than the NASDAQ in the same period. Despite this, Zuckerberg, who owns the largest slice of the company, was recently valued at over $130 billion, occupying the third spot on Forbes list of the 400 Richest Americans.
In just a few weeks, Haugen has brought national scrutiny back to one of the world’s most influential companies, marking a strong start to her campaign. She is scheduled to meet with European leaders and speak with the British Parliament in the near future to discuss Facebook’s harmful effects.
While the sentiment of needing to better control companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter has been popular in Congress, no concrete steps have been taken to reduce their negative impact on society. Time will tell whether Haugen’s research-based, meticulously planned approach will be effective in creating meaningful, positive change in the industry that touches all of our lives deeply.