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Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Horwitz, who led an investigation into Facebook that uncovered thousands of internal company documents, detailed how the social media giant operates internally and discussed its future at a Harvard Institute of Politics event Monday evening.
The event — entitled “The Facebook Files: Are teens and democratic societies at risk?” — came less than two months after the Wall Street Journal published an investigation detailing how Facebook was aware of harms perpetuated by its services. The discussion was moderated by Harvard Kennedy School professor Latanya A. Sweeney, who founded the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.
“Facebook is deeply partisan in favor of Facebook,” Horwitz said Monday. “They built a thing — it was tremendously successful. They, in very typical Silicon Valley fashion, did not really think that much about externalities because, you know, why would they? And then basically realized very late in the game that their product had some significant deleterious effects around the world.”
Horwitz discussed how he first gained access to Facebook’s internal files by developing a relationship with a company whistleblower, Frances Haugen. He said Haugen “got in touch” after the restructuring of Facebook’s civic integrity teams, which examined the social media giant’s role in elections around the world, following the 2020 election.
Horwitz said some of the documents obtained in the investigation were “really surprising” to him.
“The trade-offs didn’t seem that painful,” he said. “There were ways to cut misinformation or hate speech or [violence and incitement] significantly, at a cost of a fraction of a percent of usage.”
Facebook announced last week that it would change its corporate name to Meta Platforms, rebranding the parent company that operates WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook.
Horowitz said that Meta CEO Mark E. Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard College in 2004 to develop Facebook, plays a hands-on role in making major decisions at the company.
“The centrality is absolutely there,” Horowitz said.
Horwitz said he was disheartened by some Facebook employees’ refusal to believe the findings of his reporting.
“I think there is some willful blindness,” he said.
In an interview before the event, Horwitz said it was important to discuss his reporting with students who may go on to work in the tech industry. He added that he would not discourage young people from working in the sector.
“By all means, go to work for them,” he said. “There’s fascinating work being done. It’s groundbreaking stuff in there.”
In a statement, Meta spokesperson Andy Stone wrote that the company has “every commercial and moral incentive” to “try to give the maximum number of people as much of a positive experience as possible on Facebook.”
“The growth of people or advertisers using Facebook means nothing if our services aren’t being used in ways that bring people closer together,” he wrote. “That’s why we take steps to keep people safe even if it impacts our bottom line. To say we turn a blind eye to feedback ignores these investments, which includes the over $5 billion we’re on track to spend this year alone on safety and security, as well as the 40,000 people working on these issues at Facebook.”
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