Over in his £7million mansion outside San Francisco, Sir Nick Clegg must have been choking on his morning kale smoothie.
Facebook’s richly rewarded ‘Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications’ was in for a busy old day: One that would surely feature crisis meetings, emails marked ‘urgent’ and the odd eardrum-bashing from his boss, company founder Mark Zuckerberg (37 years old and with a net worth of over $121billion).
In Westminster Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen was in the House of Commons spilling the borlotti on her ex-employer.
Or, more pertinently, up-ending a giant bucket of pig slurry all over its head.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaves the Houses of Parliament in London, after she testified to MPs and peers as part of government plans for social media regulation
Miss Haugen is a one-time Facebook data scientist who earlier this year shared thousands of pages of company documents outlining the firm’s failure to keep toxic content off its platforms.
She had been invited to give evidence to Parliament’s Joint Committee to advise on the Online Harms Bill, which Parliament hopes to hurry into the statute book following the shocking murder of Sir David Amess earlier this month.
Over the course of a jargon-filled two-and-a-half hours, we heard how Facebook had evolved from modest origins in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room into a swirling cesspit where vile harmful content not only flourishes like toadstools on a rotting log, but is in fact prioritised.
‘Anger and hate [are] the easiest way to grow Facebook,’ she told the committee matter-of-factly. Oh, Cleggy! How did this beacon of self-righteous morality get involved with such a shameless bunch of wrong ‘uns?
Over in his £7million mansion outside San Francisco, Sir Nick Clegg must have been choking on his morning kale smoothie
Perhaps his reported £2.7million salary helped to sway him. Haugen was good.
Often a whistleblower can come across like a disgruntled employee or, worse, an attention-seeker hungry for fame, book deals, documentary appearances and so on.
Yet she made a credible witness, albeit prone to spurts of corporate gobbledegook.
She talked incessantly and without prompt, her answers illustrated with energetic arm gestures.
Behind her sat a cohort of men jotting down the occasional note. Judging by their oversized wristwatches, corporate lawyers would be my guess.
Early questioning from committee chairman Damian Collins (Con, Folkestone) concerned Facebook’s chat groups, a popular meeting place for conspiracy-theory cranks to peddle their codswallop.
Unless rapid action was taken, recent violence such as the storming of Washington’s Capitol Hill in January were just the ‘opening chapters’, Haugen predicted.
She blamed Facebook’s lack of online ‘safety officers’. She claimed that whenever she saw something posted that potentially posed a threat to national security, there was no one to report it to.
Another problem, she alleged, was that Zuckerberg and his cohorts still behaved like they were working for a start-up.
She repeatedly referred to the notorious hoodie-sporting oddball as ‘Mark’, suggesting a close familiarity.
Soon Labour peer Lord Knight was getting involved. His Lordship dialled in remotely wearing neither a jacket or tie. Was he trying to look like another Palo Alto tech bro?
Another problem, she alleged, was that Zuckerberg and his cohorts still behaved like they were working for a start-up. She repeatedly referred to the notorious hoodie-sporting oddball as ‘Mark’, suggesting a close familiarity
We learned that Facebook charged considerably less for the most divisive adverts than for compassionate ones, because the former got more ‘engagement’ from users.
The platform was ‘subsidising hate,’ said Haugen. Around the U-shaped table, there was a collective pious shaking of heads.
The committee clearly regarded Haugen as a hero. The deference was reciprocated. ‘Great question!’ she would remark occasionally in her hokey Midwestern accent.
Up popped John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil). ‘You’re trending on Twitter!’ he informed Haugen over-excitedly.
He wanted to discuss Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo site blamed for giving young girls body issues.
Users are meant to be 13 to join it, yet Haugen said Facebook did little to enforce this rule.
In Westminster Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen was in the House of Commons spilling the borlotti on her ex-employer
The earlier young people are using the platform, the ‘earlier they get them hooked,’ she shrugged.
Mr Nicolson was hungrily chasing a headline. ‘Is Facebook evil?’ he asked.
Haugen replied cryptically that it was not for her to ‘see into the hearts of men’. Nicolson tried again.
‘Is it malevolent?’ Same thing, surely – and still no dice.
Towards the end, someone asked whether Zuck would be losing any sleep over the proposed Online Harms Bill.
Haugen bit her lip and suggested he would be ‘paying attention to what you’re doing’. Totally unfussed, in other words.
Perhaps Cleggy can rest easy – though how he squares working for such a company with his own ‘liberal, democratic’ principles is anyone’s guess.