Why Washington gets so mad at Facebook

It’s the ‘cover-up.’

I’m busily teeing up Q&As for the coming months, as they’re proving to be something people like reading. And, frankly, as Slow Build is one of a handful of projects I have going on, they’re a bit more manageable to tackle. What topics would you like to see discussed? There’s almost nothing too obscure, as long as it has something to do with the intersections of tech and society. Let me know. 

FACEBOOK’S IN TROUBLE. AGAIN. AGAIN. AGAIN AGAIN AGAIN. The Wall Street Journal is embarking on a big swing at Facebook it’s calling “The Facebook Files,” and it’s not going at all well for the company. The second story in the series has in particularly landed heavily on it, having to do with what the company knows about its products’ impact on teens’ well-being. Here’s the gist:

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

It goes on:

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

There’s a lot of nuance in this topic — not all kinds of social connection are the same, you can be depressed and inspired by online content all at the same time, etc. — but here’s the real kicker: 

“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing in March 2021 when asked about children and mental health.

—Having reported on Facebook’s time in Washington for years now, one of the big takeaways is that what really rubs people on Capitol Hill wrong isn’t just the sense that the platform comes with negative side effects. It’s the sense that Facebook is consistently, persistently disingenuous about them. (Of course, Facebook says it’s always trying to be as transparent as it can be on complicated subjects, and that it’s gotten better at it over time.) But the conclusion that Facebook is willfully misleading hits members of Congress – and, importantly, staffers – as a personal affront. 

—Unsurprisingly, senators quickly announced they’re investigating. It’s one issue capable of uniting a Marsha Blackburn and a Richard Blumenthal. 

—That this internal Facebook research was previously unreported gets at why the debate over who gets access to Facebook data won’t go away. If Facebook controls the data, it maintains control over what the research can possibly say about it. 

—The other published entries in the WSJ’s “Facebook Files” series so far:“Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That’s Exempt” and, new today, “Facebook Tried to Make Its Platform a Healthier Place. It Got Angrier Instead.”


THE FTC HAS A NEW NOMINEE. Alvaro Bedoya is President Biden’s choice to fill the spot on the Federal Trade Commission being vacated as Rohit Chopra heads to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Bedoya, the founding director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, is well-known in the D.C. tech policy world, especially as a privacy advocate and critic of facial recognition. 

—He’s widely seen as thoughtful and measured. Here, for example, is me and Bedoya on WAMU’s “The Diane Rehm Show” talking “the future of Uber” way back in 2014. It’ll give you a taste of his approach. 

—Keep in mind that the FTC has, really, two main areas of focus: competition and consumer protection. Bedoya falls squarely on the consumer protection side of things, which isn’t unusual for FTC commissioners. But it is weighting the commission in a certain direction at a time when all the attention is on the competition (read: antitrust) part of the agency’s portfolio. 

—Still, Bedoya’s expected arrival will be a relief for Chair Lina Khan. It’s long been known that Chopra was heading out to CFPB, and a deadlocked FTC — two Democrats, two Republicans — would have been bad for her.   

HOW ONLINE SHOULD OUR PARKS BE? We’ve talked here recently about just how offline national parks in the U.S. often are, digging into the topic with Kansas States’ Brian Peterson, who’s done compelling research on connectivity in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. 

—As I keep poking around on the topic, noodling on a possible story at some point, it turns out that there’s a real lack of good evidence on whether the generally disconnected nature of our national parks is deliberate or a function of geography, priorities, or something else. That very topic sparked an interesting debate this week around an Instagram post from the National Park Service celebrating New Mexico’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A fascinating little back-and-forth ensues, and it’s entirely anecdata, but it’s clear that there’s a diversity of opinion out there on exactly how easy it should be to make a phone call or get online from our national parks.  

“The CIA’s Least Covert Mission.” POLITICO’s Alex Thompson has a look at how the agency is using social media to open itself up to the American public, in a bid to make itself seem a bit less scary — and a more attractive employer to generations for whom the CIA’s mystique is maybe less salient than it once was. Thompson notes a sign on the wall where the agency’s social team works:

“Every time you make a typo….the errorists win.”

—Marco Rubio was not pleased, tweeting, “We don’t need a woke @CIA / We need one focused on preventing the next 9-11 & protecting us from China, Russia, N.Korea & Iran.”

Wikimedia has a new chief. The group behind Wikipedia has named Maryana Iskander its next CEO. The one-time COO of Planned Parenthood has been serving as the head of a youth employment accelerator in South Africa. 

Robinhood is selling itself to students. The trading app is starting to aggressively market itself to college kids, including via campus visits.

The Supreme Court is back to meeting in person. But no visitors for now.