Two days after Frances Haugen revealed herself as the Facebook whistleblower on 60 Minutes, and the same day Haugen testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, Facebook’s vice president of content policy, Monika Bickert, joined CNN to drive home a message: Haugen stole our documents, and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
“There have been a lot of mischaracterizations today about what those stolen documents say,” Bickert said near the top of the interview with Alisyn Camerota.
“The majority of young people on Instagram are having a good experience and that is borne out by the documents that were stolen,” she said soon thereafter.
The third time she threw in the word stolen, it almost felt forced. “I’m saying that for the majority of teens on Instagram and the survey—the stolen survey—that was shared in the testimony shows that the majority of teens …” she said, before getting back to her point.
Haugen was the “key source” for the Wall Street Journal’s multi-part Facebook investigation, The Facebook Files, reporter Jeff Horwitz disclosed this week, soon after Haugen revealed her role as a whistleblower. The investigation contended, among other things, that the company knew that Instagram had a corrosive effect on teenage girl’s self-esteem, a conclusion that the company has claimed was based on a “mischaracterization of internal Instagram research.”
Over the course of the CNN interview, Bickert, a Harvard Law graduate with a decade of experience at the Department of Justice, did her job. She tried to make the whistleblower look like an unknowledgeable thief. Mike Isaac, a reporter at the New York Times who covers the company, said Bickert “referring to docs as stolen offhandedly is an interesting wrinkle.” But the word choice was almost certainly not offhand, nor her decision alone. Corporate PR messages are meticulously crafted ahead of time by well-paid employees. Soldiers of Bickert’s caliber are almost always coached on talking points ahead of CNN appearances.
“This is deliberate and rehearsed. It was discussed. It’s premeditated,” the communications strategist Steve Schmidt said of the interview. “So is the decision to not use @FrancesHaugen’s name. It dehumanizes her. She’s a ‘former employee’. Her identity beyond the Facebook campus has been erased and make no mistake that is a warning to the next Whistleblower. After the interview Bickert was likely congratulated by a team of handlers, each ecstatic that she was able to label the incriminating documents as stolen.”
In fact, Bickert used versions of the word “stolen” two more times during an interview with Yahoo Finance that aired Wednesday morning, including during her first comments (emphasis ours):
“I want to start by saying I think there have been a lot of mischaracterizations today include by this former employee who did not work on these issues and even with the documents she stole I think has mischaracterized what they say and what they mean about our work here.”
And then again, soon afterward:
“The stolen documents contain what is not a peer-reviewed research article but was instead a survey of a small number—I think around 40—Instagram users who were teens who were already struggling with mental health issues.”
And then, after that:
“I want to be clear again that the employee who took these documents didn’t work on these issues. So, you know, just like a reporter reading a colleague’s story and then saying, well, I’m an expert in this topic, it doesn’t make you an expert to have read these things. And I think we’ve seen some serious mischaracterizations.”
It worked. The headline of Yahoo Finance’s story about the interview read: “Yahoo Finance Facebook exec has seen ‘serious mischaracterizations’ of leaked documents.” Bickert isn’t alone in pushing some of these talking points, and she seems to be representing the feelings of at least some people at Facebook. “There are (many of) those inside FB who see this as theft of competitive intelligence,” Isaac wrote on Tuesday. Andy Stone, who works in comms at Facebook, tweeted out a related line of thought the same day: “Just pointing out the fact that @FrancesHaugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook.”
Facebook’s director of policy communications, Lena Pietsch, pushed Stone’s message once more, saying in a prepared statement on Tuesday that Haugen “worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reporters, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.” (For what it’s worth: Samidh Chakrabarti, the founder of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team who left last month, shared a screenshot of the statement on Twitter and remarked, “Well I was there for over 6 years, had numerous direct reports, and led many decision meetings with C-level execs, and I find the perspectives shared on the need for algorithmic regulation, research transparency, and independent oversight to be entirely valid for debate.”)
Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment about its PR strategy, but Isaac, the Times reporter, said Bickert’s repeated use of the word “stolen” made him “wonder about just how aggressive they’re willing to get here.” When a user replied that the company was “sending a message to future whistleblowers,” Isaac said he agreed. While that is just a theory for now, what’s clear is that Facebook is trying to delegitimize and discredit Haugen through repeatedly portraying her as untrustworthy.
The company could have stuck to debating the merits of the arguments thrust upon them. Instead, it decided to go after the whistleblower herself.
Facebook recently decided to take a decisively more aggressive and defensive approach, as Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel of the Times laid out in a piece last month. Facebook has denied it has “changed its approach,” though the decision to do so would be by no means unique. Numerous companies, including Amazon, have taken aggressive approaches to defending their public image for decades. But after years of apologies, the turn in tone is notable. (Disclosure: The writer’s sibling works at Facebook, but does not provide him with internal company information.)
Facebook reportedly turned off comments on an internal forum in July, writing “OUR ONE REQUEST: PLEASE DON’T LEAK” in a post about the change. No company likes unauthorized employees providing information to Wall Street Journal reporters. But the decision to go after Haugen’s credibility is an unfortunate turn. Zuckerberg himself has reportedly approved Facebook’s change in its communications strategy, according to the Times, but the communications team “circulated a document with a strategy for distancing Mr. Zuckerberg from scandals” in January, the newspaper said.
That seems to be in place here too. In a post on Facebook after Haugen’s testimony, Zuckerberg steered clear of the word “stolen.” That work was for those beneath him.
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