Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a new statement defending his company late Tuesday in the wake of U.S. Senate testimony from whistleblower Frances Haugen. And while comparing Facebook in the 2020s to Big Tobacco in the 1990s isn’t new, it really is striking to see Zuck make the same arguments that companies like Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds were making in the last decade of the 20th century—arguments that don’t make much sense in hindsight.
Fundamentally, Haugen argues that Facebook has chosen profits over the well-being of its users, and she stole tens of thousands of secret internal documents to prove it. Haugen told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday that the buck stops with Zuck and that he could make the product better for humanity and safer for kids if he really wanted to.
Zuck insists the whistleblower’s testimony is “illogical” and that the “good work” of Facebook has been “mischaracterized.” The billionaire says that the company delivers a quality experience, which is why “billions of people love our products.” Obviously, billions of people loved and continue to love smoking tobacco. But it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
Big Tobacco companies conducted internal research and knew that cigarettes were harmful as early as the 1950s. But they continued to insist in public, well into the 1990s, that nicotine was safe and not addictive. The CEOs of the major tobacco companies even said as much in 1994 when testifying to Congress when Ron Wyden made them go down the line and say whether they thought nicotine was addictive. They all said nicotine was not addictive, a blatant lie.
“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true,” Zuckerberg says in his new statement.
How could Facebook care more about profits that the well-being of its users? If its users are miserable, they’ll theoretically stop using the product. Unless, of course, they’re addicted. The argument is identical to what tobacco companies were saying in the 1990s. And the solution to a dwindling customer base is the same for Facebook as it was for the Big Tobacco in the 20th century: You need to hook a younger and younger audience.
We aren’t going to copy Zuck’s entire statement simply because it’s too long and boring. You’re free to read the whole thing on Facebook if that’s your cup of tea. But we’ve pulled out a few of the most interesting nuggets below, not because they’re noteworthy in isolation, but because they echo Big Tobacco’s strategy from the past.
If we wanted to ignore research, why would we create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues in the first place? If we didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would we employ so many more people dedicated to this than any other company in our space — even ones larger than us?
You know who else had an enormous research program? Big Tobacco. When the tobacco companies held a secret meeting in New York on December 14, 1953 to discuss the latest research about how dangerous smoking was, they agreed to bring in scientists to insist that cigarettes were not carcinogenic.
The tobacco industry employed scientists in the 20th century who not only said that smoking was safe, they said it wasn’t addictive. Why would Big Tobacco hire so many scientists and researchers? Because they care about delivering a useful product to their customers, just as Facebook does.
If we wanted to hide our results, why would we have established an industry-leading standard for transparency and reporting on what we’re doing? And if social media were as responsible for polarizing society as some people claim, then why are we seeing polarization increase in the US while it stays flat or declines in many countries with just as heavy use of social media around the world?
Zuckerberg is arguing that Facebook can’t be to blame for polarization because other countries outside the U.S. don’t experience the same polarization. We haven’t seen this particular study, but assuming that it exists, this tactic is identical to one deployed by the tobacco industry.
Other illnesses besides lung cancer often kill smokers, according to the tobacco companies of the 20th century. What about those diseases? Why don’t you focus on all of those other factors that can kill a person? Or, in this case, why don’t you focus on all the other reasons for polarization in the U.S. besides Facebook?
One of the big scandals the tobacco industry faced in the 1990s was over the amount of tampering they did to their products. The central issue was whether Big Tobacco was manipulating the amount of nicotine and other chemicals in order to make their products more addictive.
For example, one move that has been called into question is when we introduced the Meaningful Social Interactions change to News Feed. This change showed fewer viral videos and more content from friends and family — which we did knowing it would mean people spent less time on Facebook, but that research suggested it was the right thing for people’s well-being. Is that something a company focused on profits over people would do?
This may be the weirdest claim in Zuck’s latest post. He’s basically admitting that he has a huge dial at his desk that can make users less angry and less engaged, which harms Facebook’s profits. And that’s more or less what the whistleblower has argued all along. It was also true of the tobacco industry, despite a lot of protest to the contrary when testifying to Congress.
The former CEO of R.J. Reynolds, James Johnston, testified in April of 1994 that you can’t really call cigarettes addictive because so many people have quit smoking:
If cigarettes were addictive, could almost 43 million Americans have quit smoking, almost all of them on their own, without any outside help? The answers are obvious and that is precisely my point.
Today, even the Big Tobacco companies admit that smoking is both addictive and harmful to public health. But as recently as 1994, they were singing another tune.
The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.
Deeply illogical? Zuckerberg basically admitted that he can push content that makes people angry anytime he wants. Maybe he should back and read his last two paragraphs again, especially that part where he said, “we did knowing it would mean people spent less time on Facebook, but that research suggested it was the right thing for people’s well-being.”
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.
Facebook is arguably the Philip Morris of Big Tech, the largest player in the game. Facebook is asking for Congress to regulate Big Tech, just as Philip Morris eventually asked for regulation of Big Tobacco. Why would the biggest company in the social media business do such a thing? When you’re the largest player, regulation tends to help you maintain your dominant position, especially if you have a deep bench of lobbyists who can help make sure the legislation is largely toothless. And, boy, does Facebook have lobbyists.
No one knows what the future holds for Facebook, a company that’s objectively made the planet a far worse place to live. But if the tobacco industry is any guide, Facebook will probably start investing heavily in the health care industry so that they make money on both causing the problem and selling the cure. Philip Morris recently bought a company that makes inhalers for asthmatics. Seriously.