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BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

Why the Facebook whistleblower doesn’t want the company broken up

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before the Senate.
Matt McClain/Pool via REUTERS
Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before the Senate.
  • Scott Nover
By Scott Nover

Emerging tech reporter

Published

Facebook is the world’s dominant social media company: nearly 3 billion people use the Facebook suite each month, more than one-third of the global population, about 700 million more than YouTube, its nearest competitor. And it makes almost all of its money serving ads to users. Last year, the social media giant brought in $86 billion across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and other properties.

Would breaking it up actually solve anything, as critics have argued? Facebook faces an avalanche of issues: data privacy, misinformation, hate speech, destabilizing developing nations, enabling autocrats, and making us angrier and more insecure when we use its products.

The whistleblower behind the “Facebook Files,” leaked internal documents published by The Wall Street Journal in recent weeks, isn’t convinced.

The source of the document leaks, Frances Haugen, a former election integrity product manager at Facebook, testified before the US Senate on Tuesday (Oct. 5), that Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer,” she said, “but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”

But Haugen she said doesn’t want to see Facebook broken up. Instead, she wants new regulations to provide oversight and transparency into Facebook’s algorithm and the company to implement fixes.

The whistleblower’s rationale

Facebook is currently being sued or investigated on antitrust grounds by the US Federal Trade Commission, 48 state attorneys general, and competition authorities in Europe, the UK, and Germany. Leaked documents show, among other things, that Facebook had lax content rules for celebrities and politicians, suppressed research that showed Instagram was toxic for teenage girls, and tweaked its algorithm to prioritize hateful and angry content.

But Haugen told lawmakers that breaking up Facebook wouldn’t solve what she sees as the main problem: the algorithms themselves. In her view, Facebook prioritizes engagement on posts, which translates to profits, over all else. “A company with such frightening influence over so many people, over their deepest thoughts, feelings, and behavior needs real oversight,” she said.“These systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up.”

Instead, she argued, government oversight is key. Haugen advocated for Congress to establish a new regulatory agency that would be able to audit Facebook’s algorithms. Dividing the company could just create three separate entities each with the same challenges—and fewer resources to solve those problems. “If you break up Instagram and Facebook from each other it’s likely…that most advertising dollars will go to Instagram and Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is endangering lives around the world—only now there won’t be money to fund it.”

The impact might be particularly bad in the developing world, where Facebook serves as the de facto internet for many. Facebook’s Free Basics program provides rudimentary internet access for millions, while critics call it a “gateway drug,” or “digital colonialism,” cementing Facebook’s status as the gatekeeper to the internet for many in the Global South. In 2018, the United Nations also found that Facebook played a “determining role” enabling Myanmar’s genocide against Rohingya Muslims.

What would splitting up Facebook do?

Breaking up the Facebook empire would address one critique: it would end the control that the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his inner circle exercise over all three of the most powerful apps for global communication: Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook.

As separate companies, a very small number of people in Zuckerberg’s orbit would no longer dictate policies for billions of users, says Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies social media. “One of the main problems is ultimately the decision-making seems to come down a very small and limited group of people, most notably Mark Zuckerberg, and so breaking them up means it at least disrupts that dynamic,” McGregor said, while noting that there is no guarantee that the individual heads of the broken-up companies would do things any differently.

Chinmayi Arun, a researcher at Yale Law School and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center For Internet & Society, agreed leadership changes would only go so far toward changing how Facebook operates. “Breaking up Facebook will fix some of its problems, including the enormous influence the company currently has on the public sphere, but it will not fix all its problems,” he said in an interview.

Finding the money to moderate social media

The company is already mounting a counter offense against efforts to break up  Facebook’s empire. In a recent interview with Recode, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri claimed dividing up Facebook’s social platforms would leave the photo-sharing app woefully unprepared on key issues related to content moderation. “My first worry would be that we would be in a ton of trouble on addressing any safety and integrity and well-being issues,” Mosseri said. “There are more people that work on safety and integrity at the Facebook company than there are people who work at all of Instagram.” That would hurt the company’s efforts on hate speech, elections integrity, advertising transparency, and more, he said. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

Haugen also told lawmakers that Facebook’s advertising business would be harmed most by a breakup, so much so that the company could be cash-strapped and stop financing important efforts on research and civic integrity (although McGregor at UNC countered that Instagram, which brings in $20 billion in advertising as of 2019, even if split off, could afford to add staff and resources to work on these key areas.)

Still, if the goal of an antitrust action is unwinding Facebook’s mergers to promote competition—the stated purpose of the FTC’s complaint—it might make sense to pursue. Splitting up the Facebook empire could revive in fierce competition in the social media and messaging space for the first time in years.

But there’s no guarantee that a broken-up Facebook would be any more responsible than one big Facebook.

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