Whistle-Blower to Accuse Facebook of Contributing to Jan. 6 Riot, Memo Says
SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook, which has been under fire from a former employee who has revealed that the social network knew of many of the harms it was causing, was bracing for new accusations over the weekend from the whistle-blower and said in a memo that it was preparing to mount a vigorous defense.
The whistle-blower, whose identity has not been publicly disclosed, planned to accuse the company of relaxing its security safeguards for the 2020 election too soon after Election Day, which then led it to be used in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, according to the internal memo obtained by The New York Times. The whistle-blower planned to discuss the allegations on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, the memo said, and was also set to say that Facebook had contributed to political polarization in the United States.
The 1,500-word memo, written by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of policy and global affairs, was sent on Friday to employees to pre-empt the whistle-blower’s interview. Mr. Clegg pushed back strongly on what he said were the coming accusations, calling them “misleading.” “60 Minutes” published a teaser of the interview in advance of its segment on Sunday.
“Social media has had a big impact on society in recent years, and Facebook is often a place where much of this debate plays out,” he wrote. “But what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarization.”
Facebook has been in an uproar for weeks because of the whistle-blower, who has shared thousands of pages of company documents with lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal. The Journal has published a series of articles based on the documents, which show that Facebook knew how its apps and services could cause harm, including worsening body image issues among teenage girls using Instagram.
Facebook has since scrambled to contain the fallout, as lawmakers, regulators and the public have said the company needs to account for the revelations. On Monday, Facebook paused the development of an Instagram service for children ages 13 and under. Its global head of safety, Antigone Davis, also testified on Thursday as irate lawmakers questioned her about the effects of Facebook and Instagram on young users.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment. A spokesman for “60 Minutes” did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Inside Facebook, executives including Mr. Clegg and the “Strategic Response” teams have called a series of emergency meetings to try to extinguish some of the outrage. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, have been briefed on the responses and have approved them, but have remained behind the scenes to distance themselves from the negative press, people with knowledge of the company have said.
The firestorm is far from over. Facebook anticipated more allegations during the whistle-blower’s “60 Minutes” interview, according to the memo. The whistle-blower, who plans to reveal her identity during the interview, was set to say that Facebook had turned off some of its safety measures around the election — such as limits on live video — too soon after Election Day, the memo said. That allowed for misinformation to flood the platform and for groups to congregate online and plan the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol building.
Mr. Clegg said that was an inaccurate view and cited many of the safeguards and security mechanisms that Facebook had built over the past five years. He said the company had removed millions of groups such as the Proud Boys and others related to causes like the conspiracy theory QAnon and #StopTheSteal election fraud claims.
The whistle-blower was also set to claim that many of Facebook’s problems stemmed from changes in the News Feed in 2018, the memo said. That was when the social network tweaked its algorithm to emphasize what it called Meaningful Social Interactions, or MSI, which prioritized posts from users’ friends and family and de-emphasized posts from publishers and brands.
The goal was to make sure that Facebook’s products were “not just fun, but are good for people,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in an interview about the change at the time.
But according to Friday’s memo, the whistle-blower would say that the change contributed to even more polarization among Facebook’s users. The whistle-blower was also set to say that Facebook then reaped record profits as its users flocked to the divisive content, the memo said.
Mr. Clegg warned that the period ahead could be difficult for employees who might face questions from friends and family about Facebook’s role in the world. But he said that societal problems and political polarization have long predated the company and the advent of social networks in general.
“The simple fact remains that changes to algorithmic ranking systems on one social media platform cannot explain wider societal polarization,” he wrote. “Indeed, polarizing content and misinformation are also present on platforms that have no algorithmic ranking whatsoever, including private messaging apps like iMessage and WhatsApp.”
Mr. Clegg, who is scheduled to appear on the CNN program “Reliable Sources” on Sunday morning, also tried to relay an upbeat note to employees.
“We will continue to face scrutiny — some of it fair and some of it unfair,” he said in the memo. “But we should also continue to hold our heads up high.”
Here is Mr. Clegg’s memo in full: