Mark Zuckerberg Is Fencing, Sailing While Not Saying Anything About Facebook Whistleblower

Mark Zuckerberg has still not commented on the continuing controversy surrounding Facebook, with the CEO posting videos of him sailing and fencing on his own profile in recent weeks instead.

Facebook is under scrutiny after a former employee turned whistleblower made a number of damming claims in a series of articles published by The Wall Street Journal after leaking tens of thousands of internal documents.

Among some of the allegations were that company was aware about how potentially harmful Instagram, the photo sharing app it owns, can be for teenagers.

Despite denying the claims, Facebook announced late September it would be pausing the rollout of its planned "Instagram Kids" platform, which would have been aimed at children aged 13 and under.

The allegations have been reported by The Wall Street Journal since September 13, but Zuckerberg has not commented publicly on them.

Instead, statements from the social network defending their actions or denying the allegations have been issued by other leading figures, such as its vice president of policy and public affairs, Nick Clegg, or Pratiti Raychoudhury, Facebook's vice president and head of research.

According to a report by The New York Times, Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, are being deliberately kept out of the public eye over the allegations surrounding Instagram, with members of its "Strategic Response" teams, dealing with the fallout instead.

Facebook has come under further criticism after the whistleblower identified herself in a 60 Minutes interview as 37-year-old Frances Haugen, a data scientist who joined Facebook in 2019.

Haugen, who is due to testify before Congress, could reveal more damning allegations about how the social network operates.

During Sunday night's broadcast, Haugen accused Facebook of not being truthful about the progress it is making about tackling hate speech, violence and the spreading of misinformation on the app, and of prioritizing company growth over public safety.

"There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen said. "And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money."

Haugen alleged that the company made a number of decisions they knew could cause real life harm in order to increase their profits, including changing their algorithm so that posts with lots of engagement are pushed onto people's feeds.

On Sunday, before the 60 Minutes show was due to broadcast, Zuckerberg uploaded a video of him sailing with his wife Priscilla Chan.

On September 20, one week after the Instagram allegations emerged, Zuckerberg himself fencing gold medalist Lee Kiefer and world champion Gerek Meinhardt, which was recorded on sunglasses that can shoot film, which Facebook and Ray-Ban have worked on together.

Haugen claimed Facebook made this decision in 2018 despite its own research showing that "content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing" gets the most engagement.

"When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content it erodes our civic trust, it erodes our faith in each other, it erodes our ability to want to care for each other," Haugen said. "The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world."

Mark Zuckerberg sailing and fencing
Recent videos posted on Mark Zuckerberg's social media show the Facebook CEO sailing and fencing. He has not spoken publicly about the allegations made by whistleblower Frances Haugen since they began being reported anonymously in the Wall Street Journal in September. Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook

Haugen said that while Facebook did take steps to control the spread of misinformation around the 2020 Election, these were pulled back shortly after the results were declared in November and the algorithm which pushed user engagement returned.

Haugen said the knock on effect of this was that Facebook helped contribute to the January 6 attack at the Capitol.

"Facebook has realized that if it changes the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site," she told 60 Minutes. "They'll click on less ads, they'll make less money."

Elsewhere, Haugen said that she does "have a lot of empathy" for Zuckerberg because he "never set out to make a hateful platform."

She added: "But he has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful, polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach."

Haugen is set to testify to Congress this week, where she will argue that the federal government needs to help impose restrictions on Facebook.

"Facebook has demonstrated it cannot act independently. Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety," Haugen said.

"It is subsidizing, it is paying for its profits with our safety. I'm hoping that this will have had a big enough impact on the world that they get the fortitude and the motivation to actually go put those regulations into place."

Mark Zuckerberg left reeling from Facebook allegations
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to testify to Congress this week, where she will argue that the federal government needs to help impose restrictions on the social media company. Getty Images

In a statement to Newsweek on the need for more internet regulation, a Facebook spokesperson said: "We agree it's time for updated internet regulations and have been calling for it ourselves for two and a half years.

"Every day, we make difficult decisions on where to draw lines between free expression and harmful speech, privacy, security, and other issues, and we use both our own research and research from outside experts to improve our products and policies.

"But we should not be making these decisions on our own which is why for years we've been advocating for updated regulations where democratic governments set industry standards to which we can all adhere."

On September 30, Antigone Davis, Facebook's global head of safety, was questioned by senators during a Senate commerce, science and transportation subcommittee over the claims that the company was aware that it knew Instagram could cause harm for children.

Ahead of the hearing, Facebook released annotated slideshows for two internal research reports—"Teen Mental Health Deep Dive," published in October 2019, and "Hard Life Moments," published in November 2019—which they argued show "It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is 'toxic' for teen girls."

The annotations even suggested more accurate headlines that should have been used in the internal documents, instead of the ones which were cited by The Journal.

According to The New York Times, a number of people who worked on the reports were unhappy with how the company criticized The Journal for basing its reporting on what it described as limited and imprecise findings of the document in an attempt to save face.

"They are making a mockery of the research," one employee posted on a company message board.

Raychoudhury said in an earlier statement: "In addition to putting specific findings in context, it is also critical to make the nature of this research clear.

"This research, some of which relied on input from only 40 teens, was designed to inform internal conversations about teens' most negative perceptions of Instagram. It did not measure causal relationships between Instagram and real-world issues.

"These documents were also created for and used by people who understood the limitations of the research, which is why they occasionally used shorthand language, particularly in the headlines, and do not explain the caveats on every slide."

Facebook declined to comment on the allegations made in The New York Times report.

Facebook Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg walks to lunch following a session at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 08, 2021 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Update 10/04/2021 7:05 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with further comment from Facebook.