The Danger of Letting Facebook Off the Hook Like Big Oil

The Danger of Letting Facebook Off the Hook Like Big Oil
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shown on a screen to virtual testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on July 29, 2020. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP, Getty Images)

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has rocked the company with distrubing revelations about how the social media giant knows it harms its users, speaking to the media and in front of members of Congress this week to lay out the case that Facebook is doing damage to its users.

Last night, CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a statement on Facebook that aims to mitigate the damage. Breaking down the note and the logical gaps in it, this very site compared it to Big Tobacco’s defence of its deadly products in the 1980s. Apt, yes. But there’s an even better comparison: Big Oil.

To be sure, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and other behemoths pushed smoking as glamorous and cast doubt on findings that their products caused cancer even as they acknowledged it internally for years. And tobacco was a huge part of American — and global — culture. But Facebook is about much more than culture. Its products essentially make it the oil of the internet, an indispensable part of what makes the world tick. And if there’s a lesson from the past four decades, it’s that not regulating it will come with grave consequences.

Like tobacco companies and Facebook, oil companies also have their own well-funded research wings. “If we wanted to ignore research, why would we create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues in the first place?” Zuckerberg rhetorically asked in his post.

Well, understanding and acting are two separate things. Indeed, Exxon similarly started a high-profile (internally, anyway) climate research team in the 1970s, and look where it’s gotten us.

“This team must be recognised for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management,” Henry Shaw, the head of the team, wrote in a memo to his boss unearthed by Inside Climate News in a bombshell investigation about Exxon’s sordid climate history.

Exxon’s team of researchers did amazing work. Among their many findings are a 1982 prediction that is disturbingly accurate in both the link it drew between carbon dioxide and global average temperature and the scenario it was based on, which predicted companies would unlock oil reserves that were technologically inaccessible at the time. Exxon and other oil companies understood all too well the risk their products posed, just as Facebook appears to have piles of research showing its products cause harm.

And like Big Oil, Facebook appears to have decided that information was too dangerous to its bottom line to make public. Instead, Facebook has worked to ingrain its products further into people’s lives. The main Facebook platform along with Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which the company owns, have billions of users. The centrality of Facebook to those users came into stark relief on Monday when the company’s services effectively disappeared from the internet due to a glitchy protocol. When those services went offline, many people of course made jokes about uncles not being able to post vaccine misinformation. But for billions of people, Facebook’s ecosystem is essential, and when it goes down, entire economies are crippled. It’s central to livelihoods in the form of ads for small businesses, Marketplace for resellers, and as a means of communicating with friends, family, and customers. WhatsApp alone has become basically a modern day equivalent of a landline for countless people in the developing world. In some places, Facebook simply is the internet.

Oil works much the same way. It’s the toxic, planet-warming juice that keeps the global economy humming. Fossil fuels have become so ingrained in the economy largely because companies have bought out smaller competitors and fought off alternatives (much like Facebook) then talked up their essentialness (much like Facebook). They’ve also cast doubt on regulations that would constrain them (Facebook) and obfuscated the damage they were causing to the public (apparently, just like Facebook).

They’ve also aggressively pursued PR strategies to look like they are trying their best. That strategy was laid bare in a secret recording made public of an Exxon lobbyist who explained how the company vocally backs a carbon tax because it knows it will never pass while making the company, one of the world’s largest corporate carbon polluters, sound reasonable. It was even a founding member of a big business group committed to the idea. (Exxon got the boot after the recordings were made public.)

In his damage control statement, Zuckerberg touted Facebook’s efforts along those lines, noting that, “Similar to balancing other social issues, I don’t believe private companies should make all of the decisions on their own. That’s why we have advocated for updated internet regulations for several years now. I have testified in Congress multiple times and asked them to update these regulations. I’ve written op-eds outlining the areas of regulation we think are most important related to elections, harmful content, privacy, and competition.”

Those asks conveniently do not include breaking up Facebook’s empire, something lawmakers have proposed and the Federal Trade Commission is attempting to do, nor do they include more oversight of the rampant misinformation problem on Zuckerberg’s platform. (To be fair, other social media platforms also have this issue.)

We’ve seen the deleterious effects of Big Oil continuing to play a key role in the global economy. The world now has a choice of decarbonizing or frying. And thanks to four decades of delay, winding down fossil fuel use must happen at a breakneck pace to avert the most catastrophic climate change scenarios that will leave billions of people impacted. The International Energy Agency found, for example, all new oil exploration must end next year to have a fair shot at meeting the 1.5-degree-Celsius  target in the Paris Agreement.

That should be a cautionary tale and a key lens for how to interpret Facebook’s spin in the coming days and weeks ahead as well as the company’s response to Haugen’s Securities and Exchange Commission complaints. Letting a company that has become an economic and social lifeline for billions of people continue to, at least according to Haugen’s complaints and documents, knowingly harm its users is a nightmare. It took four decades to get to the bottom of Big Oil’s complicity in the climate crisis, and now we’re in a race against time to stave off even worse damage, let alone hold the companies that got the world to this point accountable. Waiting that long to unravel what’s happening at Facebook simply isn’t an option.