The campaign against Facebook has a synthetic quality to it
The current campaign against Facebook has a curiously synthetic quality to it.
Media organisations seeking to publish stories based on Facebook whistle-blower Francis Haugen’s material now need to sign up to a ‘consortium’, and agree to a release schedule and embargoes, all co-ordinated via Slack.
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Similarly, for legal representation, Haugen chose Mark Zaid’s Whistleblower Aid, which had previously represented an official who claimed Trump inappropriately petitioned the Ukrainian president in a phone call. Her PR advice comes from executives with deep Democratic Party ties.
And then there’s the testimony itself. During her appearances in Parliament this week, Haugen has shown a willingness to advance opinions not just on the material she saw and the internal policies she engaged with, but what should happen next to Facebook. These are oddly specific. For one, the whistle-blower dismissed demands for a breakup of Facebook’s empire, instead backing the creation of state regulator. This earned the contempt not just of antitrust campaigner Matt Stoller, but Glenn Greenwald too, who described Haugen as a ‘false flag’ operation for advocating a regulatory model that would put Democrats in control of what speech is permissible on the platform.
The campaign now also has wealthy foundations lining up behind it, too. For example, Pierre Omidyar’s Luminate, which has funded dozens of privacy and data NGOs in the UK and Europe, recently announced a change of emphasis to focus primarily on Facebook instead. This week at Westminster I passed a slick anti-Zuckerberg art installation, funded by an American NGO with no previous UK presence — journalists were invited to call a US number for an explanation.
Meanwhile the $400m donation in the 2016 election by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan goes largely unreported. This intervention handed the election machinery in many districts to activists, and conservatives allege that this disproportionately helped Democrat candidates.
Finally, there’s the curious absence of scrutiny on Google, whose YouTube video monopoly is often cited as a prime source for radicalisation, but which appears to have a free pass. (To the delight of conspiracy theorists, Google had paid for Haugen’s Harvard MBA during her stint with the company).
All of this doesn’t constitute a plea for sympathy for Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, who remains a uniquely unlovable. Nor should the questions derail public debate of how to deal with genuine harms on Facebook’s properties, from suicide groups for teens to extremists. But for those who do care about such issues, the politicisation of Facebook regulation by Cathedral opinion may prove an unhelpful distraction. It is possible to view the attention on Big Tech as long overdue and yet at the same time, feel some unease about such a well-funded and co-ordinated international effort to seize control of our communications media.