Katie Benner, The New York Times;
Marianna Sotomayor, The Washington Post;
Eamon Javers, CNBC;
Nancy Cordes, CBS News;
Cecilia Kang, The New York Times
Time: 8:00 p.m. EDT
Date: Friday, October 8, 2021
Superior Transcriptions LLC
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Battles on Capitol Hill and presidential showdowns.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I am glad that their brinksmanship did not work.
MS. ALCINDOR: An economic meltdown is averted, at least temporarily, after a deal is reached to raise the debt limit until December.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) The majority didn’t have a plan to prevent default, so we stepped forward.
MS. ALCINDOR: But can Republicans and Democrats come to a long-term agreement? Meanwhile, the House committee investigating the January 6th attack issues more subpoenas.
REPRESENTATIVE JASON CROW (D-CO): (From video.) If you refuse a subpoena, there are consequences for you, so there darn well should be consequences for the president and his top enablers.
MS. ALCINDOR: And former President Trump is urging aides not to cooperate with the inquiry as a Senate report reveals the lengths he took to overturn the 2020 election. Plus –
FRANCES HAUGEN: (From video.) They’re paying for their profits right now with our safety.
MS. ALCINDOR: In damning testimony, a whistleblower claims Facebook knowingly spread misinformation that contributed to the Capitol insurrection, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. This week economic disaster was narrowly avoided as lawmakers made a last-minute bipartisan deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. It’s a temporary fix that will only last until December 3rd, and it came after President Biden and business leaders warned about the dangers of the U.S. defaulting.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The United States pays its bills. It’s who we are. It’s who we’ve been. It’s who we’re going to continue to be, God willing.
CITIGROUP CEO JANE FRASER: (From video.) We are, simply put, playing with fire right now, and our country has suffered so greatly over the last two years.
MS. ALCINDOR: Hours later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell caught some in his own party by surprise when he announced Republicans were willing to vote to raise the debt ceiling. On Thursday the Senate passed a short-term extension but neither side seemed particularly happy with kicking the can down the road.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) We screwed up. For two months we promised our base and the American people that we would not help the Democratic Party raise the debt ceiling so they could spend $3 1/2 to $5 trillion through reconciliation. At the end of the day, we blinked.
SENATOR CHRIS COONS (D-DE): (From video.) And we will be right back here in two months needing another vote configured exactly like tonight’s vote in order to raise or suspend the debt ceiling going forward.
MS. ALCINDOR: Next week the House will take up the bill. Meanwhile, President Biden is still trying to unite Democrats to pass two infrastructure bills.
Joining me tonight to discuss all of this, because there was so much this week: Nancy Cordes, CBS News chief White House correspondent; Eamon Javers, CNBC senior Washington correspondent; and Marianna Sotomayor, congressional reporter for The Washington Post. Marianna, you cover Congress. It’s where all the action was this week. Talk to me a bit about how Democrats and Republicans are feeling about this short-term deal, and why did Mitch McConnell blink but also he sent a letter to President Biden today saying that he’s not helping in December to raise the debt ceiling?
MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR: Well, as you know, in Congress everything works on deadlines, and the closer you get to deadlines is usually the time in which there’s action. Unfortunately, in this case, as much as McConnell and Republicans have been saying since the summer we’re not going to participate in raising the debt ceiling, there really wasn’t much time procedurally to make sure that the government wasn’t going to default. So it really got to the point where Democrats started to talk about, well, maybe we have to get rid of the filibuster to be able to raise that debt ceiling, and McConnell basically came to the table because he knew two key senators in potential negotiations, especially someone – you know, talking about Joe Manchin and also Kyrsten Sinema, they don’t want to nuke the filibuster, so he came to the table to try and talk to Democrats and basically say, listen, we will try and provide those 10 crucial votes to expedite the process. It was many hours of Republicans trying to whip those 10 votes. We did see it happen, but there was anger. You heard it in those clips.
MS. ALCINDOR: There was anger. And I wonder, will Mitch McConnell face any sort of consequences? Because you saw people like Ted Cruz, like Lindsey Graham really, really angry that Republicans provided the votes to raise this debt limit.
MS. SOTOMAYOR: Yeah, I mean, Republicans aren’t going to be there. They’re not going to be able to help raise the debt limit this next time, so Democrats really are going to have to go it alone, even though they’re saying and are positioning that they don’t want to do that. They really do think that maybe Republicans are going to blink again.
MS. ALCINDOR: Eamon – (laughs) – you’re on this show because as soon as we start talking about the debt limit, I was like, OK, so where is Eamon – (laughter) – because clearly I need to figure out how to report on this. So I wonder, for you, what do you make of Mitch McConnell’s decision here? How much did business leaders warning about the dangers play into that? And then, also, connect this to everyday Americans and how this relates to just people who are trying to survive in this COVID economy.
EAMON JAVERS: Look, I think the business leaders were enormously influential here in making the case. Look, this, A, stupid and, B, dangerous to go down this path because it could have enormous implications for the American economy. And basically there – separate out the politics of the debt ceiling in which both sides are trying to get the other side to take a tough vote. Right? And the blame game is there. They want to put the other side, the onus of the deficit, on the other side. The economics of it are this: Congress votes to spend the money and then the Treasury has to go and get that money; they either have to get it from taxes or they have to borrow it. The way they borrow that money is by issuing Treasury bills and investors around the world buy Treasuries and Treasury pays them an interest rate in order to do that. That’s a fundamental building block of the global economy. Those Treasury bills are really important for everything else that people do in the debt markets around the world. If the United States defaults and says, we’re just not going to pay, ultimately, the interest on that debt, then that has enormous implications for the global economy. The business community understands that and they were waving a red flag here saying, look, you guys are playing a dangerous political game; we really want you to come together and get a deal. And I think that’s why you saw, or at least part of the reason why you saw, a deal sort of come together here. But the bottom line is we’re going to right back here again in December. So the politics of it haven’t really changed. The deadline’s been kicked out a little bit. They still have a really difficult time coming together with a deal in December, and you wonder whether we’re going to be playing with fire again.
MS. ALCINDOR: Playing with fire and a difficult deal. You could be talking about the debt ceiling or infrastructure.
Nancy, where do things stand on infrastructure with the president trying to unite his party? He was in Michigan this week, but my reporting tells me that Democrats are trying to whittle down this $3.5 trillion bill down to somewhere around $2 trillion. What are you hearing and what is the president hearing from moderates and progressives?
NANCY CORDES: What I’m hearing is that the problem with whittling it down is that they don’t know how much they need to whittle it down. They know it’s got to come down from 3.5 trillion (dollars) to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 trillion (dollars). But while we hear a lot of progressives, a lot of members of the Democratic Party in the mainstream saying they’re willing to come down, what you’re not hearing, at least publicly, from Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema is that they’re willing to come up. Joe Manchin every time he talks to reporters he is still on that $1.5 trillion mark, so he’s not shown, at least publicly, any willingness to move. And that’s one of the reasons that these talks are moving so slowly. They can’t start to figure out what it is they’re going to cut from this bill, which of these cherished programs they’re going to have to let go, until they know what the top-line spending number is, and it seems it’s been very difficult for the White House to get any traction with Manchin and Sinema on what that compromise number should be.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Marianna, you’re nodding your head here. What are you hearing on Capitol Hill about what could be on the chopping block here?
MS. SOTOMAYOR: Well, Nancy’s exactly right. They don’t know exactly where to cut yet because they don’t have those exact demands from Manchin and Sinema. You know, talking to progressives, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which really held strong to make sure that infrastructure vote did not happen until this agenda was completed, they are saying, well, you know, we don’t have to even talk about cuts yet. We want to make sure that every single priority is still part of this bill and the only way to bring it down is likely by, you know, sunsetting these programs a little bit earlier. That has tensions with the moderates who say, well, if you fund something for two to three years, guess what; the House could be under Republican control so there’s no guarantee that they will actually reauthorize these programs again, and maybe it’s better to just go ahead and make permanent things that already exist, like the Affordable Care Act subsidies, and potentially close the Medicaid gap. Those are some of the things that moderates really want to make sure they can get soon and make sure that the American people feel that immediately.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Eamon, as all of this is being juggled, we got a September jobs report that was disappointing. What did it tell us about the COVID economy? And especially how people are struggling when you look at the unemployed, but also women?
MR. JAVERS: Well, you’ve got the unemployed, you’ve got women, but you’ve also an economy overall where employees are desperate to hire, and they’re finding shortages of workers. So you have this weird sense that people want to get back to work, but employers can’t find the right people for those jobs. So part of it is training, a lot of it is childcare, and especially when you talk about women who the burden of childcare falls disproportionately upon. A lot of people are saying with COVID, with kids not necessarily fully back in school yet, I don’t feel like I can get back into the workforce.
And you’re seeing employers struggling. And one of the things they’re doing is they’re raising wages, they’re increasing benefits. They’re doing all kinds of things. So the reality is it’s actually in a lot of different professions – I mean, you know, you talk about restaurants and some other things – it’s a great time to be looking for work. But it’s a tough economy out there for a lot of people still. So you’ve got this bifurcated picture on the jobs – on the jobs front.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Nancy, President Biden sort of needed this win. I wonder what you – what you make of the narrative that might be playing in some voters’ minds when you have Mitch McConnell having his issues with Republicans and the deal that he made. You also have the president’s approval numbers, and Democrats fighting it out. What does this say to voters when you think about the narrative that people think about Washington and the inability to govern on both sides?
MS. CORDES: Well, it certainly makes it harder for the president to go into these negotiations, even with two members of his own party, when he’s not coming in from a position of strength, when he isn’t coming in and saying: Look, the American people are clearly on my side. You need to come and meet me in the middle. His approval ratings are pretty low right now. They wanted a win with these jobs numbers today. Instead they found themselves sort of cherry picking through the report to try to find some figures that actually suited them.
MR. JAVERS: It’s bad when you have to turn to page three of the report to find something good that you can point to, right?
MS. CORDES: At the end of the day, the best president could do was to say: Look, COVID was so bad in September, you had so many more cases, those jobs numbers were bound to be bad. They’ll be better next month.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah. Yeah. And meanwhile today other big news, the Biden White House formally blocked an attempt by former President Trump to withhold initial documents requested by Congress related to the January 6th attack. This sets up a legal showdown between the current and former presidents over executive privilege. All this comes as reports say President Trump is urging top aides not to comply with subpoenas from the House committee investigating the Capitol attack.
And a newly released Senate report, because there’s so much going on this week, revealed that on at least nine occasions President Trump demanded Justice Department officials take actions that they believed would undermine the 2020 election. And if that wasn’t enough, what else happened this week? A Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, also testified before Congress. She told lawmakers that Facebook knowingly spread misinformation and hate that contributed – contributed – to the Capitol insurrection.
FRANCES HAUGEN: (From video.) The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy, and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook make changes.
MS. ALCINDOR: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pushed back on her allegations. In a statement he said, quote, “At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and wellbeing. That’s just not true.”
Joining us remotely now are Katie Benner, Justice Department reporter for The New York Times, and Cecilia Kang, technology reporter for The New York Times and co-author of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. Thank you, ladies, both for being here. I feel like I’m back at the New York Times D.C. Bureau, where I used to hang out with both of you. So I appreciate you coming on tonight.
Nancy, I want to go to you first. There was this formal blocking release of these initial documents by the Biden White House. What are their thoughts there? What’s the thinking behind this action?
MS. CORDES: Well, we know their thinking because the White House counsel basically said, point blank, that the president believes that President Trump trying to exert executive privilege here is not in the best interests of the United States. They called it “unique and extraordinary circumstances.” They say that President Trump basically doesn’t have any basis to hide, you know, visitor logs, call logs from January 6th. You can imagine there are a lot of people in his orbit, perhaps Republicans on Capitol Hill, who don’t want those call logs to be made public. But this is the Biden White House doing now what it’s been signposting for a couple weeks, saying: We’d love nothing more than for all of that information to get out in the public, because we think that what happened on January 6th was a terrible day in this country and needs to be prevented.
MS. ALCINDOR: They’ve been saying it’s a stain on American democracy.
Katie, I want to come to you. The select committee also threatened to criminally charge Steve Bannon – this is former President Trump’s chief strategist – or, former President Trump’s former chief strategist – with criminal charges here because he’s not wanting to comply with the subpoena by the House Select Committee. Talk about the legal options that lawmakers have here when it comes to pursuing top aides of Trump? And I also wonder – President Trump has been saying that he’s going to try to sue to block these documents from being released. What’s the issue there?
KATIE BENNER: Sure. So, well, on Bannon in particular it’s really difficult to know what legal protections he has, because he was not a member of the administration at the time that these conversations were happening about how to – you know, how to overturn the results of the election. So Congress has said they would sue him, they would hold him in contempt. And it’s clear that he seems to have a little bit more legal exposure than some people who were in the administration, like Mark Meadows, like Kash Patel.
But what we also have reported is that Kash Patel, Mark Meadows, there are in communications with the select committee. It’s clear that they feel that they may need to hand over documents, they may need to cooperate. In part because it’s going to be very difficult to make a legal argument that these people should not participate in the select committee’s questioning and that documents shouldn’t flow to the committee when former President Trump did not try to stop former Justice Department officials from testifying before Congress.
And as we see from their testimony, which was just released by the Senate Judiciary Committee, it’s an extremely full account of many of the things and many of the matters that people like Mark Meadows would be questioned on. So how could the president allow, you know, the former Attorney General Jeff Rosen, for example, to have this very full discussion with the committee about the same matters they want to speak to Mark Meadows about, but then say that Mark Meadows for some reason cannot share the same information?
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Katie, you also wrote this week about the Senate report that really detailed what President Trump was trying to do with the Department of Justice to overturn the 2020 election. There were reports that he tried to call – or, he or his allies were calling the DOJ every day, sometimes multiple times a day. What did this report reveal about how far President Trump went?
MS. BENNER: You know, what the report did is it confirmed reporting that started coming out in January of this year from various publications that said that the president was trying to use the Justice Department to do two things. One, to actually overturn the results of the election and, two, to create statements, public documents, file briefs that would just cast enough doubt on the legitimacy of the election that the president and his allies could take it from there, and sort of sow greater doubt and delegitimize the results of the election.
So the report verifies that reporting, but the Judiciary Committee also, in startling detail, it’s like the received every communication happening between the White House and the Justice Department. Plus, the transcripts of three witnesses who gave extensive testimony. It really underscores the intensity of the former president’s campaign, and the intensity of his allies’ campaign to have the Justice Department legitimize activity that at that point was really just sort of brewing in the White House.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Cecilia, you’re the top Facebook reporter. You’re a great reporter on a lot of other subjects – on a lot of other subjects. But Facebook is where you shine. You wrote this book. Talk a bit about Facebook’s role in the threats to democracy, given that the Facebook whistleblower said that the company was allegedly contributing to the hate and misinformation that led to January 6th.
CECILIA KANG: Yes, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, her team within Facebook in December 2020 was disbanded. And the team that she worked on was called the civic integrity team. That team was really charged with trying to fight election-related misinformation. This was right at the time when the Stop the Steal movement and other Trump supporters were really organizing on Facebook’s various platforms: Facebook, Facebook Groups, Facebook Messages, Instagram, and WhatsApp. And what they were doing is they were organizing in communication, really riling each other up on what they believed was a stolen election.
So Frances Haugen, what she said in the testimony this week in the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee was that Facebook turned a blind eye in the sense that it let its security forces down by disbanding her group. That was sort of actually the straw that broke the camel’s back for her, in that she decided to quit after that. And I think it’s really important to note that what she was seeing internally – and this is the pattern that she describes in all of her testimony as a whistleblower – is a company that portrays itself very differently in public from what the company was really dealing with internally and what it knew.
On January 11th, after the January 6th Capitol riots, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, spoke to Reuters in a video interview. And when asked about Facebook’s role in the January 6th riots, she said: Look, we definitely have problems with enforcement, we’ve definitely had problems with misinformation, but the vast majority of communication and organizing for Capitol rioters did not occur on any of our platforms, it occurred on other platforms, like Parler and Gab. The fact of the matter is, is that when the indictments came out for Capitol rioters we saw that Facebook was one of the main methods of communication for the Capitol rioters.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s fascinating. And Cecilia, I also wonder, can you talk a bit about the money behind this? What are the profit decisions that Facebook is making? And I also wonder, what steps could Congress take in regulating Facebook when it’s thinking about the decisions that it’s making with these profits?
MS. KANG: Yeah, I mean, one thing that Frances Haugen said over and over in her testimony this week is that Facebook chooses profits over the safety of people. What we have found at The New York Times as well as in our reporting for our book – Sheera Frenkel and I – is that what Facebook does certainly do – and this sort of is confirmed by Ms. Haugen’s testimony – is it absolutely prioritizes engagement. It prioritizes traffic, it prioritizes people wanting to come back more and more, and what that means is it has decided when it – when it designs its systems through software choices to rank very highly the most emotive content, the most – the most agitating content, whether it’s positive or negative agitation. And the side effect of that is, is that a lot of the content that really makes you want to press a like button, press the share button, press the comment – and make comments on a Facebook post, is very toxic and oftentimes harmful content, like election-related misinformation. So that was her overriding message. By choosing to – choosing engagement and growth – and in her words, profits – over the safety of people as of – as the first priority, the safety of people and the integrity of its network – of its platform are the costs of that engagement focus.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Marianna, you’re on Capitol Hill. What do you hear from lawmakers about their willingness, and really can they even juggle regulating Facebook when they have all these other things that they’re dealing with?
MS. SOTOMAYOR: That is probably the biggest part, when would you be able to figure out any time on the calendar to be able to even debate or pass this kind of legislation? The good news is that you saw Republicans and Democrats both express worry and wanting to know more about Facebook and just general social media tendencies and how they influence people to act in a certain way, but you really didn’t hear any policy prescriptions of any kind yet. And again, you just don’t have time between the debt ceiling that they’re going to have to deal with, funding the government which is also a deadline in early December, but – and also passing the build back better infrastructure-social safety net agenda. That is going to be top priority, and adding anything else is pretty difficult.
MS. ALCINDOR: And when we think about – you know, talking about the threats to democracy, we saw Vice President Pence this week downplay January 6th, Nancy. He was someone who, of course, had to run for his life. They were chanting about hanging him. What does it tell you amid all of the conversations about Facebook that the former vice president is downplaying the Capitol attack here?
MS. CORDES: It tells you that he may have future political aspirations and that in order to realize those aspirations he currently believes that he needs to try to stay on the good side of not just President Trump but more importantly his supporters, and to do that he needs to downplay a day in which there were people standing outside the Capitol saying hang Mike Pence. You know, now to say it was just any other day, you know, it wasn’t that big of a deal, is really surprising coming from him.
MS. ALCINDOR: Eamon.
MR. JAVERS: I think you’re exactly right, and I just wonder if a political figure really does have national possibilities in the future if a large portion of his own party’s political base was on Capitol Hill chanting that they wanted to hang him, right? I mean, can you come back from that? Mike Pence clearly –
MS. CORDES: Why would you – why would you want to? (Laughs.)
MR. JAVERS: And why would you – exactly. Mike Pence clearly believes he can overcome that. We’ve never seen an American politician in this country face that sort of rancor from his own party, his own political base, motivated by his own boss, and then overcome that to win a nomination. The idea that Pence can come back from that and win the nomination seems to me to be enormously farfetched, but a lot of what we’ve seen has been enormously farfetched so certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Katie, we only have a couple seconds here. I’ll give you 30 seconds if you can: What’s the national security risks around all of the things that we’re talking about? What are you hearing from the DOJ when we think about Facebook, when we think about the Republican Party and the direction that they’ve taken, talking about the Capitol attack as a tourist visit? What are your sources telling you?
MS. BENNER: So I think that what we see are real parallels to the same conversations that the intelligence community had with social media companies around international extremism and terrorism more than a decade ago. They were saying, listen, you guys, you’re not only – you know, you’re not only sharing propaganda; you’re allowing really extremist movements to grow and foment, for people to connect on your platforms. I think we’re seeing a parallel with that today. So even though Mark Zuckerberg is saying we had nothing to do with January 6th – he’s pointing toward Fox News and other places – Facebook is a lab for ideas in so many ways. And as Cecilia pointed out, the ideas that get the emotion and the most traction are the ideas that are going to move from Facebook into the real world. And so Facebook’s decision to – it’s own propaganda to try to separate itself from real-world consequences doesn’t make sense, especially when social media companies were sort of quietly in private meetings agreeing with the intelligence community more than a decade ago that they were – that they contributed to extremism overseas.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, all of this is just so important. We all – millions of people use Facebook. We’re going to talk about it more in the Extra, but I really appreciate all of you bringing your reporting on this busy, busy week. That’s it for tonight. Thank you to our reporters for joining us and thank you at home for watching.
And on Monday, watch the PBS NewsHour. The show will examine the monumental battle over heritage and land on Indigenous People’s Day.
We’ll continue our conversation on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our website, Facebook, and YouTube. This week we’ll take, as I said, a deep dive into Facebook.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.
(End of broadcast show.)
(Beginning of the Washington Week Extra.)
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Tonight let’s continue the conversation about Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony before Congress. She told lawmakers the company put profits before public safety.
FRANCES HAUGEN: (From video.) The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.
MS. ALCINDOR: She also told lawmakers that the company, Facebook, knows their products harm kids and teens.
FRANCES HAUGEN: (From video.) It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have good self-regulation. They say explicitly I feel bad when I use Instagram and yet I can’t stop. We need to protect the kids.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responded in a note to his employees posted on his public Facebook page. He wrote, quote, “We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health…it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids.”
Now joining us remotely, Cecilia Kang, technology reporter for The New York Times and co-author of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. And with me here at the table, Nancy Cordes, CBS News chief White House correspondent; Eamon Javers, CNBC’s senior Washington correspondent; and Marianna Sotomayor, congressional reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you all for being here. Cecilia, you get the first question because, of course, you’re our Facebook expert at this table. Tell us a little bit more about this whistleblower. Who is she? What did she say? And what’s motivating her, do you think?
CECILIA KANG: Yeah. Frances Haugen spent nearly two years at Facebook on a team called the civic integrity team. That is a team that basically tries to fight off misinformation and other harmful content. Her background and her expertise is actually in the technology behind the newsfeed, on how – and how the company determines what it wants to rank highest and lowest in terms of engagement. So she’s really deep into the system. She understands the technology. And she’s also a Silicon Valley veteran. She’s worked at Google, Pinterest, and Yelp as well.
And what motivated her was a decision in December 2020, when Facebook decided to disband her civic integrity team. This was right after the election, and certainly when there was still certainty a lot of unrest in the country about the election results. And to her, that was the clear sign that the company was not making – was not serious enough about protecting its users and making sure that misinformation about the election, as well as a slew of other types of harmful content, was not on the site. And she was seeing internally practices and a struggle with really important issues internally that the company was not admitting to the public.
So what she did was she quit in December. And before she left she copied off tens of thousands of documents of internal research that’s actually available to many, many employees. But she copied it off. And this is the kind of research, like the teens in Instagram research that you mentioned, Yamiche, earlier. And she decided that she would take those documents once she left, and she brought them to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. And The Wall Street Journal has since begun a series of stories. They and other journalists are now continuing to report on all these documents that the whistleblower has brought to the public.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Cecilia, one of the first times I really understood the sort of backdoor things that happen in Facebook is when you started reporting on it, and when you wrote your amazing book – that everyone, of course, should get. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your reporting connects to what this whistleblower’s saying.
MS. KANG: Yeah. We really feel like the whistleblower’s testimony, certainly, and the reporting from her documents confirm absolutely the main theme of our book. The book theme and the book title, An Ugly Truth, comes from a memo from a very senior executive named Andrew Bosworth, where – it’s called “the ugly.” Where he says: Facebook believes so much in connecting the world that it believes that even though there will be a lot of collateral damage because of its quest to connect the world – that kind of damage can be terrorist attacks, it can be bullying, it can be deaths even. But in the end, the goal of connecting the world will be better for the world, and it will be net-net good. And we’re willing to absorb those costs. That’s the calculus that the company has.
That’s sort of the thrust of what the whistleblower’s documents show, is that growth is the most important thing. Because the memo said “connecting the world,” but we’ve come to realize that that’s actually sort of a euphemism for growth, growth in engagement, and growth in profits. And the whistleblower’s main argument is that the company is so bent on growing and keeping its site very relevant, that it is making decisions that has not just small collateral damage, but enormous collateral damage.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, you know, Cecilia’s talking about this sort of idea of Facebook putting everything – putting profit before everything. Eamon, I wonder when Cecilia’s also talking about how we rely on Facebook. What did this outage this week – which if people don’t really kind of realize it was Instagram, it was WhatsApp, it’s Facebook. So when say “Facebook” we’re talking about multiple platforms. What did that outage show about how much people rely on Facebook, especially around the world?
EAMON JAVERS: Well, and multiple countries around the world, and also you’re talking about businesses that do all their advertising on Facebook, that communicate with their customers through WhatsApp. I mean, I think of Facebook as the service that we use to keep in touch with those people that we went to high school with, who we’re too lazy to actually pick up the phone and call. But actually, a lot of businesses are done on Facebook. And you saw this enormous impact globally on all of those people. And take a minute to step back and realize the impact of what the whistleblower did here.
I mean, first of all, serving as sort of an undercover anti-Facebook agent inside the company, stealing those documents. Facebook says those are stolen documents. Then leaking them out to The Wall Street Journal in a very tactical way for a devastating series of blockbuster articles in the Journal, day after day after day with revelations. Then coming forward on 60 Minutes with a big reveal of her own identity. And then two days later Capitol Hill testimony that riveted the country. This rollout of what the whistleblower did, this operation under cover inside of Facebook, was devastating for Facebook. This was a very tough week for them.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Nancy, you’re nodding your head. I want to bring you in here. I was going to ask you what does President Biden think about all this, but really Eamon just also talked about this PR rollout that I hadn’t really even put together. What do make of all – (laughter) – he just said?
NANCY CORDES: It was impressive and I want to know who was behind it because they’re going to get a lot more business.
MR. JAVERS: The reporting is Bill Burton was behind it, right, so I mean, there’s some Washington insiders who might have had a hand in this.
MS. CORDES: Ah, right, who know – you know, they know – they know how the Washington ecosystem works, certainly.
You know, I think the president and the White House have made no secret of their disdain for Facebook, right? I mean, didn’t the president kind of have to walk back his comments after he said that they were killing people, you know? And then he clarified; he said, well, no, it’s not Facebook itself that’s killing people, it’s people who post on Facebook. But you know, they’ve been very outspoken about the fact that they think that a lot of social media platforms, but Facebook in particular, have a responsibility that they’re not meeting right now. The problem is, and Marianna really hit on it earlier, that they’ve got a very crowded agenda. They’ve got a lot of things they’d like to accomplish. And so while this is one of those issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree something needs to be done, you wonder when it is going to rise to the top of the agenda, especially because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lawmakers, some of them, tend not to be all that technologically savvy – (laughter) – you’ve noticed that? –
MR. JAVERS: That’s a very generous way of putting that. (Laughter.)
MS. CORDES: – in some of their questioning at hearings before. So it seems that there’s – they know something needs to be done, but they’re sometimes a little bit tentative to say, definitively, and this is what I think should be done, these are the new regulations I want to see.
MR. JAVERS: When are you going to ban “finsta,” was one of the questions. Right? (Laughs.)
MS. CORDES: Right, exactly, so that’s another reason why you’ll continue to see a lot of agreement that something should happen; when we will actually see that happen, that’s an open question.
MS. ALCINDOR: Marianna, what are you hearing on Capitol Hill from these lawmakers about Facebook, their time for trying to regulate this, and, also, just their understanding of what needs to be done?
MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR: Yeah, you know, there’s been many years where there’s been these kinds of oversight hearings, not as blockbuster as this one, where you do have members, you can tell, and senators, they don’t really know which way to question someone; like, they get there –
MS. ALCINDOR: In that exact tone. (Laughter.)
MS. SOTOMAYOR: Yeah, exactly, there’s a lot of hesitancy of, like, I hope I’m getting this right. (Laughter.) But then you get the “finsta” commentaries and things like that. So there’s still a lot of people who are looking at this. And one thing to note, too, is that there’s probably going to be more investigations or hearings before there will be any kind of legislation proposed. And one thing to note is the January 6 committee, for example; they really want to talk to this Facebook whistleblower because she has also mentioned the fact that Facebook had a role in potentially allowing or, you know, not doing enough oversight to allow these people, these insurrectionists to communicate on all these different devices and social media networks. So that is something that – it’s likely we might be able to see – in a couple weeks or so she might come back and testify before that committee behind closed doors.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Cecilia, it’s a question that my producers and I were thinking through: What makes Facebook so different than other social media platforms, when you think about Twitter or other things? What sets them apart? What possibly makes them worse than these other platforms?
MS. KANG: Well, I think one very distinguishing factor is that the company is basically Mark’s company. It’s Mark Zuckerberg’s company. He owns 55 percent of voting shares. He makes the decisions. And Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, said the buck stops with Mark. And I think that’s absolutely true in my reporting. The other thing that’s really different, in relation to the research that you mentioned, Yamiche, on teens and Instagram and the harms, the toxic harms and sort of the negativity that a lot of teenagers feel from using the platform: One really interesting finding from that research, Facebook’s own internal research, is that Facebook believes that Instagram is different and, in some ways, worse than TikTok and Snapchat, and just in a very small, interesting way. Instagram has these sort of beauty filters and there’s also this culture of trying to curate this vision of who you are in your life. There’s a lot of focus on the full body. TikTok – and, by the way, TikTok and Snapchat definitely have their problems; they’re not completely, you know, immune to problems. But TikTok is much more of a sort of performance-based fun app, is what a lot of the teenagers who took the surveys for Facebook said; they feel like it’s a little bit more humorous, like, sort of like, just different kinds of challenges, dances, a lot more lighthearted. Snapchat, interestingly, has these face filters that are really sort of goofy, cartoon-animated filters that are just supposed to also be fun, and the focus is on the face. And so the kind of body-image issues that Instagram users reported to Facebook in its own research, one out of three teenagers said that when they use Instagram they – because of using Instagram they feel worse about their body image. Fourteen percent of teens in the U.K. said that those – that they had suicidal ideations and they could trace it back to Instagram use. I mean, those are the kinds of feelings and anxieties and really, really harmful kind of responses that didn’t exist with these other apps, and I thought that was a really important distinguishing factor.
The other, last thing I would say is, Twitter is, very interestingly, more willing to experiment with ways to try to fight misinformation and also to try to protect its users, and one thing that they do is – I’m sure we’ve all gone through this: When you try to retweet something that you haven’t – a story that you haven’t read and actually opened up, you get a popup box that says: Are you sure you really want to retweet this? Looks like you haven’t read it. Facebook doesn’t have that kind of feature, and that feature is known as friction. It provides friction between you and sharing, you and otherwise – in other – in other words, you and amplifying more of that content, and Facebook just doesn’t do that. So they’re not making the same kinds of decisions as some of their competitors are that arguably could be good solutions to at least start solving this misinformation problem.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s such a comprehensive answer and one that I think so many people really need to hear about just the difference of Facebook with all the other social media platforms. Eamon, I’m going to come to you for the last word here: Is this all about money? Does this all, at the end of the day, end up about profits, and where do we go from here?
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, look, Facebook has grown so fast over such a relatively short period of time, you know, and you think of the past 15 years or so. The question for Facebook is, how can they keep growing? I mean, the law of big numbers suggests once you have almost everybody on planet Earth who’s connected to the internet as part of your service, how can you continue to grow, right? And so one of the things that they’re trying to do is keep all those people on the service for even longer amounts of time. That’s what engagement is. And the idea is that all these angry things that we are seeing on Facebook are enticing people to stay on the service for a longer period of time. That represents more ad dollars, more revenue for Facebook. So the more engagement they get, the more profit they make. And in a world where it’s going to be very hard for them to find new customers because they already have just about everybody on the planet, well, engagement is the answer. And so if they dialed back on some of these things and dialed back on some of the angry content, they’re also going to be dialing back on profits, and that’s a real problem for a public company.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah. Well, we’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you so much to Cecilia, Nancy, Eamon, and Marianna for joining us and sharing your reporting.
And make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a look at all things Washington.
Thank you so much for joining. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.