Tag Archives: “The Facebook Files”

when is a whistleblower not a whistleblower? Facebook, Frances Haugen, Avaaz (again) and the billion dollar question

Facebook is not averse to censorship. Indeed, it has already been in the business of censoring political content for many years. Here is journalist Chris Hedges speaking out against its social media censorship twelve months ago:

Twitter and Facebook blocked access to a New York Post story about a cache of emails reportedly belonging to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter, with Twitter locking the New York Post out of its own account for over a week. This overt censorship is emblematic of the widening and dangerous partisan divide within the US media. News and facts are no longer true or false; they are divided into information that either hurts or promotes one political faction over another.

While outlets such as Fox News have always existed as an arm of the Republican Party, this partisanship has now infected nearly all news organisations, including publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post along with the major tech platforms that disseminate news. The division of the press into warring factions shreds journalistic credibility, creating a world where facts do not matter, and where a public is encouraged to believe whatever it wants to believe.

The statement above provided the introduction to Chris Hedge’s interview with fellow journalist Matt Taibbi on his RT show On Contact broadcast on the eve of the US Presidential election [Oct 31st, 2020]. The show is also embedded above and you can click here to read an annotated transcript I posted a few days later under the title “Chris Hedges and Matt Taibbi on true ‘fake news’ and the monopolised censorship of the tech giants”.

However, Facebook’s censorship of political content enjoys a far longer history, as I already highlighted in an extended article published in March 2019 under the title “Gilet Jaunes, Avaaz, Macron & Facebook (or when grassroots ‘populism’ meets controlled opposition)”. In that piece I drew on revelations make public by Forbes magazine in April 2018 of secret rules for censoring posts:

The company has come in for a fair amount of criticism over the years for taking down perfectly innocuous content – everything from photos of classical statues to the famous picture of a napalmed child in Vietnam.

Now, users whose content has been taken down will be notified and given the chance to ask for a review; reviews will normally be carried out within 24 hours.

The policy will initially apply only to nudity or sexual activity, hate speech and graphic violence, says [VP of global product management Monika] Bickert.

But, she adds, “We are working to extend this process further, by supporting more violation types, giving people the opportunity to provide more context that could help us make the right decision, and making appeals available not just for content that was taken down, but also for content that was reported and left up.” 1

At that time and in response to Facebook’s announcement of its policy, the ACLU cautioned against this corporate censorship drive and clampdown on free speech:

If Facebook gives itself broader censorship powers, it will inevitably take down important speech and silence already marginalized voices. We’ve seen this before. Last year, when activists of color and white people posted the exact same content, Facebook moderators censored only the activists of color. When Black women posted screenshots and descriptions of racist abuse, Facebook moderators suspended their accounts or deleted their posts. And when people used Facebook as a tool to document their experiences of police violence, Facebook chose to shut down their livestreams. The ACLU’s own Facebook post about censorship of a public statue was also inappropriately censored by Facebook.

Facebook has shown us that it does a bad job of moderating “hateful” or “offensive” posts, even when its intentions are good. Facebook will do no better at serving as the arbiter of truth versus misinformation, and we should remain wary of its power to deprioritize certain posts or to moderate content in other ways that fall short of censorship. 2

Click here to read the ACLU statement in full.

In the same article, I also highlighted a fresh censorship drive that had been launched by Facebook back in October 2018:

People need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook. It’s why we have a policy banning coordinated inauthentic behavior — networks of accounts or Pages working to mislead others about who they are, and what they are doing. This year, we’ve enforced this policy against many Pages, Groups and accounts created to stir up political debate, including in the US, the Middle East, Russia and the UK. But the bulk of the inauthentic activity we see on Facebook is spam that’s typically motivated by money, not politics. And the people behind it are adapting their behavior as our enforcement improves.

The statement continues:

Topics like natural disasters or celebrity gossip have been popular ways to generate clickbait. But today, these networks increasingly use sensational political content – regardless of its political slant – to build an audience and drive traffic to their websites, earning money for every visitor to the site. And like the politically motivated activity we’ve seen, the “news” stories or opinions these accounts and Pages share are often indistinguishable from legitimate political debate. This is why it’s so important we look at these actors’ behavior – such as whether they’re using fake accounts or repeatedly posting spam – rather than their content when deciding which of these accounts, Pages or Groups to remove.

Today, we’re removing 559 Pages and 251 accounts that have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior. Given the activity we’ve seen — and its timing ahead of the US midterm elections — we wanted to give some details about the types of behavior that led to this action. 3

Click here to read the Facebook statement in full.

This clampdown was reported on by the Guardian in an article entitled “Facebook accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages purged”, which included an interview with two disabled veterans, one of whom stated that:

“I don’t think Facebook wants to fix this… I think they just want politics out, unless it’s coming from the mainstream media.”

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Avaaz campaign Facebook knew

It is noteworthy, I think, that yesterday [Oct 27th] – a day that happens to coincide with the reopening of Julian Assange’s extradition trial – I received a new message from pressure group Avaaz. It reads [with all highlights retained from original]:

A brave whistleblower just leaked secret Facebook documents… and they’re shocking!

They show that Facebook knew. It knew that human traffickers used their platform to lure women into sexual slavery. It knew that it was being used to incite violence against minorities, which had already fueled death and displacement in the past. It knew that divisive lies and extremism were being promoted to millions all over the world. And it knew its systems were removing less than 1% of violent content.

Facebook knew all this. And yet, the whistleblower said, it has put “profits before people”.

As I say, it is interesting how the timing of this latest Avaaz campaign on the back of “whistleblower” Frances Haugen has coincided with the trial of the single most prominent whistleblower in the world today, Julian Assange.

I contend, however, for a variety of reasons I shall come to, that Frances Haugen is not a real whistleblower at all. After all, genuine whisteblowers lose their jobs, or still worse, they finish up in prison. And they always, more or less by definition, have something new to disclose.

Chelsea Manning is a real whistleblower. Likewise John Kiriakou, who exposed the use of waterboarding and served time in jail, and former UK ambassador Craig Murray, who testified to the UK’s complicity in the horrific torture of Uzbek dissidents (presenting evidence of victims boiled alive) and consequently lost his job and his health (today he languishes in prison after falling foul of unrelated charges).

There are countless examples of real whistleblowers, and arguably the most exceptional is Julian Assange himself, held in conditions described by the UN as “torture” inside max security HMP Belmarsh and facing extradition to the US for espionage.

As Jonathan Cook wrote in an article entitled straightforwardly “Haugen Isn’t Really a ‘Facebook Whistleblower’” at the beginning of this latest saga:

There are clues that Haugen’s “whistleblowing” may not be quite what we assume it is, and that two different kinds of activities are being confused because we use the same word for both.

That might not matter, except that using the term in this all-encompassing manner degrades the status and meaning of whistleblowing in ways that are likely to be harmful both to those doing real whistleblowing and to us, the potential recipients of the secrets they wish to expose.

The first clue is that there seems to be little Haugen is telling us that we do not already know – either based on our own personal experiences of using social media (does anyone really not understand yet that Facebook manipulates our feeds through algorithms?) or from documentaries like The Social Dilemma, where various refugees from Silicon Valley offer dire warnings of where social media is leading society.

We did not call that movie’s many talking heads “whistleblowers”, so why has Haugen suddenly earnt a status none of them deserved? (You can read my critique of The Social Dilemma here.)

Cook then correctly acknowledges that the immediate and prominent attention Haugen has received from both liberal media outlets and within political circles (especially on “the left” – i.e., Democrat rather than Republican) “does not mean that she is not drawing attention to important matters” (emphasis is mine), before adding:

But it does mean that it is doubtful that “whistleblowing” is a helpful term to describe what she is doing.

This is not just a semantic issue. A lot hangs on how we use the term.

A proper whistleblower is trying to reveal the hidden secrets of the most powerful to bring about accountability and make our societies more transparent, safer, fairer places. Whistleblowing seeks to level the playing field between those who rule and those who are ruled.

At the national and international level, whistleblowers expose crimes and misdemeanours by the state, by corporations and by major organisations so that we can hold them to account, so that we, the people, can be empowered, and so that our increasingly hollow democracies gain a little more democratic substance.

But Haugen has done something different. Or at least she has been coopted, willingly or not, by those same establishment elements that are averse to accountability, opposed to the empowerment of ordinary people, and stand in the way of shoring up of democratic institutions.

Jonathan Cook continues:

Our “Facebook whistleblower” is not helping to blow the whistle on the character of the power structure itself, or its concealed crimes, or its democratic deficit, as Manning and Snowden did.

She has not turned her back on the establishment and revealed its darkest secrets. She has simply shifted allegiances within the establishment, making new alliances in the constantly shifting battles between elites for dominance.

Which is precisely why she has been treated with such reverence by the 60 Minutes programme and other “liberal” corporate media and feted by Democratic party politicians. She has aided their elite faction over a rival elite faction.

Click here to read Jonathan Cook’s article published by Counterpunch on October 12th in full.

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Digging a little deeper, journalist Alexander Rubinstein reveals more about Haugen’s sudden emergence as the purported source of the leak quickly christened “The Facebook Files”. He writes:

Haugen first appeared in September 2021 as the supposed source of a leak called “The Facebook Files.” She was immediately hailed as a “modern US hero” in the media for secretly copying tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents and releasing them to the Wall Street Journal, which published a series of nine articles based on the documents.

The WSJ initially kept its source anonymous, rolling out the series two weeks before Haugen came forward in an October 3 interview with 60 Minutes. On camera, she complained that Facebook was “tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world.”

“Ethnic violence including Myanmar in 2018 when the military used Facebook,” narrated 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, to “launch a genocide.”

When pressed by 60 Minutes about what motivated her to leak the documents, Haugen answered vaguely: “at some point in 2021, I realized I’m going to have to do this in a systematic way and I have to get enough [so] that no one can question that this is real.”

Yet Haugen first divulged company information before 2021. In the final installment of the Journal’s series, the outlet revealed that Haugen first sent an encrypted text to one of their reporters on December 3, 2020.

That same article, published the day the 60 Minutes interview aired, reported that Haugen “continued gathering material from inside Facebook through her last hour with access to the system. She reached out to lawyers at Whistleblower Aid [more on this organisation below], a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that represents people reporting corporate and government misbehavior.”

Doors have been promptly flung open on both sides of the Atlantic, with Frances Haugen ushered to give testimony before lawmakers across Europe and in America. Having spoken with MPs in France and Britain as well as two members of the European Parliament on October 3rd, Haugen was also called on October 5th to testify before a Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection.

But who is Frances Haugen anyway? Well, this is you will learn from her current Wikipedia entry (all links retained):

After graduating from college, Haugen was hired by Google, and worked on Google Ads, Google Book Search, a class action litigation settlement related to Google publishing book content, as well as Google+.[7] At Google, Haugen co-authored a patent for a method of adjusting the ranking of search results.[11] During her career at Google, she completed her MBA, which was paid for by Google.[7] While at Google, she was a technical co-founder of the desktop dating app Secret Agent Cupid, precursor to the mobile app Hinge.[12][10][13]

She then moved to Google’s tech rival Facebook and became product manager on the newly-formed “threat intelligence unit” which comprised some 200 fellow employees. Rubinstein picks up the story again:

At Facebook, Haugen claimed she worked as product manager on a “threat intelligence unit” at the company. “So I was a product manager supporting the counter-espionage team,” she claimed to Sen. Sullivan. Part of her job included “directly work[ing] on tracking Chinese participation on the platform,” she claimed. Further, she alleged that Iran used the platform to conduct “espionage” on the platform.

“I’m speaking to other members of Congress about that,” Haugen acknowledged. “I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today.”

As journalist Kit Klarenberg reported, the little-known Facebook “threat intelligence unit” where Haugen claimed to have worked is staffed by former CIA, NSA, and Pentagon operatives. Those who work at the unit must have “5+ years of experience working in intelligence (either government or private sector), international geopolitical, cybersecurity, or human rights functions,” according to a job posting.

Yet Haugen’s now-deleted blog and Twitter account feature no political content, nor does her resume.

In short, Frances Haugen’s profile has the telltale signs of an intelligence operative, while this latest tranche of document leaks has all the hallmarks of a limited hangout. Equally, and set alongside Haugen’s somewhat exceptional employment history, there are related questions that arise once we delve into the legal body that represents her, an organisation called Whistleblower Aid:

[T]he outfit was founded by a national security lawyer, Mark Zaid, who has been accused of ratting out his client, CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, to his employers in Langley. Zaid is joined by a former State Department official and government-approved whistleblower, John Tye [more below], ex-CIA and Pentagon official Andrew Bakaj, and veteran US government information warrior, Libby Liu, who has specialized in supporting color revolution-style operations against China.

John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower jailed for exposing the agency’s role in the serial torture of terror suspects, commented to The Grayzone, “Mark Zaid presents himself to the public as a whistleblower attorney, however, he is anything but. Instead, he has betrayed his clients and come down on the side of prosecutors in the intelligence community. He is not to be trusted.”

Kiriakou continued, “My own personal belief is that he is the intelligence community’s preferred ‘whistleblower’ attorney because he’s willing to place their interests over his clients.”

Alexander Rubinstein continues:

Tech billionaire and media mogul Pierre Omidyar has provided funding to Whistleblower Aid, as well as to a public relations firm assisting Haugen. Omidyar has played his own role in US foreign interventionism, sponsoring anti-government media outlets and activists alongside US government agencies in states where Washington seeks regime change. […]

Whistleblower Aid bills itself as “a pioneering, non-profit legal organization that helps patriotic government employees and brave, private-sector workers report and publicize their concerns — safely, lawfully, and responsibly.”

But is this group truly the whistleblower protection outfit it claims to be?

In fact, Whistleblower Aid appears to have been modeled as a sort of anti-Wikileaks organization.  “Whistleblower Aid is not Wikileaks,” the “vision” page of the former organization insists. On another section of its website, it states, “No one should ever send classified information to Whistleblower Aid. Whistleblower Aid will never assist clients or prospective clients with leaking classified information.”

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Avaaz campaign Facebook knew - continued

Coming back to Avaaz’s email (see extract above): after vaingloriously promoting itself with claims such as “Avaaz has helped force Facebook’s shame onto the agenda of legislators across the world”, their latest message goes on remind us of the other threats we may face by not censoring online content:

We’ve seen, time and again, what devastating real-world consequences social media can have. In Myanmar, the military turned Facebook into a tool for ethnic cleansing, spreading hatred that fueled a bloodbath. In Palestine and Israel, viral lies are further inflaming the conflict. And all over the world, it’s become a Covid-conspiracy hotbed, with doctors warning against an ‘infodemic’ of fake news.

Nobody does overwrought rhetoric quite like Avaaz! (emphasis in keeping)

But seriously, does anyone actually believe social media is to blame in any way whatsoever for inflamed tensions between Palestine and Israel? If so, how? Surely it has a great deal more to do with the illegal occupation, the bombing of Gaza, the indiscriminate shooting of peaceful protesters and the daily oppression of Israel’s apartheid regime; none of which, judging by the campaigns it most actively promotes, Avaaz has any serious concern about.

And precisely what constitutes “a Covid-conspiracy hotbed”? Or put differently, how can social media firms be regulated to police every question relating to the risks, treatments (including vaccines), and importantly, the unknown origins of the pandemic? For that matter, and besides Avaaz and some in the media, who is issuing such dire warnings about a supposed ‘infodemic’ – doctors, which doctors? The fact is that a great many doctors and other medical experts are actively engaged in this vitally important debate and are very thankful to have access to public platforms across the internet.

Here is comedian and political commentator Jimmy Dore pointing out how Facebook’s so-called “independent fact checkers” – i.e., anonymous corporate gatekeepers – have just flagged up research in a published and peer-reviewed scientific study by Harvard scientists [warning: strong language]:

Intriguingly, Alexander Rubinstein’s own fact check into the background of ‘whistleblower’ Frances Haugen uncovers another link to Avaaz, since it transpires that “government-approved whistleblower”, John Tye – who, as mentioned above, was co-founder and chief disclosure officer of Whistleblower Aid, the legal nonprofit organisation assisting Haugen – had previously worked there too:

Shortly before leaving Avaaz, Tye responded to criticism of the billionaire-backed group’s advocacy for a [Syria] no-fly zone, writing “thousands and thousands of people will die, for years to come, if we turn away and wring our hands.”

As I explained at greater length in an extended article from March 2015, the term “no-fly zone” is both a misnomer and a euphemism. In fact it is a straightforward demand for sustained military intervention necessitating air strikes. By calling for “no-fly zones” Avaaz was deliberately helping to manufacture consent for US military intervention that sought regime change both in Libya and Syria.

But then, as Rubinstein points out, when it comes to these nonprofit wheels within wheels, they are all turning in much the same direction – ‘the nonprofit-industrial complex’:

Like his former client-turned-legal partner, Mark Zaid has clamored for ramped up US intervention in Syria, tweeting to then-President Trump “what are you going to do about Syria? It’s your problem now, We can’t stand by and let innocent people continue to be slaughtered.”

Click here to read Alexander Rubinstein’s full article entitled “Facebook ‘whistleblower’ Frances Haugen represented by US intelligence insiders” published by The Grayzone on October 21st.

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Which brings us to the billion dollar question: who really benefits from Haugen’s “disclosures”? Another independent journalist, Glenn Greenwald, sets out the case carefully in his own recent article published on Substack:

There is no doubt, at least to me, that Facebook and Google are both grave menaces. Through consolidation, mergers and purchases of any potential competitors, their power far exceeds what is compatible with a healthy democracy. A bipartisan consensus has emerged on the House Antitrust Committee that these two corporate giants — along with Amazon and Apple — are all classic monopolies in violation of long-standing but rarely enforced antitrust laws. […]

Facebook and Twitter both suppressed reporting on the authentic documents about Joe Biden’s business activities reported by The New York Post just weeks before the 2020 election. These social media giants also united to effectively remove the sitting elected President of the United States from the internet, prompting grave warnings from leaders across the democratic world about how anti-democratic their consolidated censorship power has become.

But none of the swooning over this new Facebook heroine nor any of the other media assaults on Facebook have anything remotely to do with a concern over those genuine dangers.

He continues:

Agitating for more online censorship has been a leading priority for the Democratic Party ever since they blamed social media platforms (along with WikiLeaks, Russia, Jill Stein, James Comey, The New York Times, and Bernie Bros) for the 2016 defeat of the rightful heir to the White House throne, Hillary Clinton. And this craving for censorship has been elevated into an even more urgent priority for their corporate media allies, due to the same belief that Facebook helped elect Trump but also because free speech on social media prevents them from maintaining a stranglehold on the flow of information by allowing ordinary, uncredentialed serfs to challenge, question and dispute their decrees or build a large audience that they cannot control. Destroying alternatives to their failing platforms is thus a means of self-preservation: realizing that they cannot convince audiences to trust their work or pay attention to it, they seek instead to create captive audiences by destroying or at least controlling any competitors to their pieties. […]

The canonized Facebook whistleblower and her journalist supporters are claiming that what Facebook fears most is repeal or reform of Section 230, the legislative provision that provides immunity to social media companies for defamatory or other harmful material published by their users. That section means that if a Facebook user or YouTube host publishes legally actionable content, the social media companies themselves cannot be held liable. There may be ways to reform Section 230 that can reduce the incentive to impose censorship, such as denying that valuable protection to any platform that censors, instead making it available only to those who truly allow an unmoderated platform to thrive. But such a proposal has little support in Washington. What is far more likely is that Section 230 will be “modified” to impose greater content moderation obligations on all social media companies.

Far from threatening Facebook and Google, such a legal change could be the greatest gift one can give them, which is why their executives are often seen calling on Congress to regulate the social media industry. Any legal scheme that requires every post and comment to be moderated would demand enormous resources — gigantic teams of paid experts and consultants to assess “misinformation” and “hate speech” and veritable armies of employees to carry out their decrees. Only the established giants such as Facebook and Google would be able to comply with such a regimen, while other competitors — including large but still-smaller ones such as Twitter — would drown in those requirements. And still-smaller challengers to the hegemony of Facebook and Google, such as Substack and Rumble, could never survive. In other words, any attempt by Congress to impose greater content moderation obligations — which is exactly what they are threatening — would destroy whatever possibility remains for competitors to arise and would, in particular, destroy any platforms seeking to protect free discourse. That would be the consequence by design, which is why one should be very wary of any attempt to pretend that Facebook and Google fear such legislative adjustments.

Taking the helicopter view, we might properly regard the tech giants and their billionaire owners as rivals only in the way the five mafia families of The Godfather are rivals. When they are not fighting turf wars, they are working hand in glove and functioning as vital components of the national security state which protects all of their interests as it maintains the status quo.

As Greenwald concludes:

There are real dangers posed by allowing companies such as Facebook and Google to amass the power they have now consolidated. But very little of the activism and anger from the media and Washington toward these companies is designed to fracture or limit that power. It is designed, instead, to transfer that power to other authorities who can then wield it for their own interests. The only thing more alarming than Facebook and Google controlling and policing our political discourse is allowing elites from one of the political parties in Washington and their corporate media outlets to assume the role of overseer, as they are absolutely committed to doing. Far from being some noble whistleblower, Frances Haugen is just their latest tool to exploit for their scheme to use the power of social media giants to control political discourse in accordance with their own views and interests.

Click here to read Glenn Greenwald’s full article entitled “Democrats and Media Do Not Want to Weaken Facebook, Just Commandeer its Power to Censor” published on October 5th.

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1 From an article entitled “Facebook Reveals Its Secret Rules For Censoring Posts” written by Emma Woollacott, published in Forbes magazine on April 24, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/emmawoollacott/2018/04/24/facebook-reveals-its-secret-rules-for-censoring-posts/#40a453b56da4

2 From an article entitled “Facebook Shouldn’t Censor Offensive Speech” written by Vera Eidelman, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, published by ACLU on July 20, 2018. https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech/internet-speech/facebook-shouldnt-censor-offensive-speech

3 From a Facebook announcement entitled “Removing Additional Inauthentic Activity from Facebook” written by Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy and Oscar Rodriguez, Product Manager, posted by Facebook on October 11, 2018. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/10/removing-inauthentic-activity/

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