Nick Clegg is no match for Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen

Cantillon: Substance of allegations against social media company leaves a bad taste

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen  speaks to Scott Pelley on an episode of 60 Minutes. Photograph: Robert Fortunato/CBS News via AP

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen speaks to Scott Pelley on an episode of 60 Minutes. Photograph: Robert Fortunato/CBS News via AP

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Two US television interviews at the weekend did not exactly present Facebook in the healthiest of lights. One, on CNN’s media show Reliable Sources, featured a tired-looking Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader who these days is paid big money to serve as Facebook’s defender-in-chief.

“A part of me feels like I’m interviewing the head of a tobacco company right now,” said host Brian Stelter, as Clegg blinked then batted away the comparison to Big Tobacco as “profoundly false”.

Alas, he then backed up this statement with the assertion that people enjoy social media apps in large numbers – a popularity once shared by, um, cigarettes.

The other interview, broadcast by CBS on its flagship 60 Minutes programme, marked the unveiling of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who is the reason why Clegg was out trying to fight fires in the first place. (Mark Zuckerberg? Never heard of him.)

Haugen is a model whistleblower: assured in her objectives and clear in her summary of its “systemic” amplification of hateful, polarising and anger-inspiring content. Most of all, she is massively prepared.

Before she quit Facebook in May, the experienced former product manager on Facebook’s civic integrity team copied tens of thousands of pages of internal documents that she then leaked to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Her lawyers have also used them as the basis for multiple complaints to the US’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Image pressures

The WSJ’s Facebook Files series included a report on how Facebook’s own research suggested Instagram made body image issues worse for teenage girls – a finding of in-built toxicity that until last week did not seem to hamper its desire to develop an Instagram Kids app aimed at pre-teens.

The show isn’t over: on Tuesday, Haugen will outline further to a Senate sub-committee in Washington the ways in which her former employer prioritised its engagement metrics over the public good.

Facebook’s denials have involved referencing the 40,000 people it has working on safety and security and the $13 billion (€11.2 billion) it has invested in this side of its business since 2016. And yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that if it wants to shake this scandal off like all the others, it will have to do better than quoting numbers, however large they may be, and it will have to do better than Nick Clegg.

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