by Kate Cox
September 24, 2020

from ArsTechnica Website






"At worst,

I fear we are pushing ourselves

to the brink of a civil war,"

added the former Employee...



Former Facebook manager - "We took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook"

Speaking to Congress today, the former Facebook manager first tasked with making the company make money did not mince words about his role.


He told lawmakers that the company,

"took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset" and arguing that his former employer has been hugely detrimental to society.

Tim Kendall, who served as director of monetization for Facebook from 2006 through 2010, spoke to Congress today as part of a House Commerce subcommittee hearing examining how social media platforms contribute to the mainstreaming of extremist and radicalizing content.

"The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity," Kendall said in his opening testimony.


"At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding - at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war."

As director of monetization, he added,

"We sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible... We took a page form Big Tobacco's playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset."

His analogy continued:

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent.


But eventually that wasn't enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods.


At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.


Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco's bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs.


But that incendiary content alone wasn't enough.


To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

Engagement leads to profits, and so engagement with content is everything, Kendall later expanded in response to questions, adding that "engagement" was the metric that drove all Facebook decisions when he was at the company, and he assumes that's still true today.

"We initially used engagement as sort of a proxy for user benefit," Kendall explained.


"But we also started to realize that engagement could also mean [users] were sufficiently sucked in that they couldn't work in their own best long-term interest to get off the platform...


We started to see real-life consequences, but they weren't given much weight. Engagement always won, it always trumped."


"There's no incentive to stop [toxic content] and there's incredible incentive to keep going and get better," Kendall said.


"I just don't believe that's going to change unless there are financial, civil, or criminal penalties associated with the harm that they create.


Without enforcement, they're just going to continue to be embarrassed by the mistakes, and they'll talk about empty platitudes... but I don't believe anything systemic will change... the incentives to keep the status quo are just too lucrative at the moment."




Growing sentiment


Kendall is far from the only former Facebook employee now to be expressing regret for his former work and staking out a stance against the company.


Others, too, have concluded that Facebook is long overdue for some kind of regulation or external enforcement push.


Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes last year published a lengthy op-ed calling for regulators to break up the company.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg "is a good, kind person," Hughes wrote at the time.


"But I'm angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks... The government must hold Mark accountable.


It is time to break up Facebook."

A few weeks later, Hughes took that message on a tour through Washington, meeting with,

  • members of Congress

  • the Justice Department's Antitrust Division

  • the Federal Trade Commission

  • the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, make a detailed case against Facebook.


Several other lower-ranking Facebook employees quit publicly this year, calling on Facebook to do better by society.


Software engineer Timothy Aveni resigned in June, explicitly citing Facebook's failure to act on an inflammatory statement by President Donald Trump that strongly implied a call for violence against protestors.

"I've spent a lot of time trying to understand and process the decision not to remove the racist, violent post Trump made Thursday night, but Facebook, complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history," Aveni wrote.

Hundreds of Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout protesting the company's inaction the day before Aveni resigned.


Many at the time also posted rare, public disagreements with Facebook and its CEO to other platforms, such as Twitter.

"Facebook's inaction in taking down Trump's post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here," one wrote.

In September, another software engineer, Ashok Chandwaney, also resigned publicly, citing similar reasons to Aveni.

"I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally," Chandwaney wrote.


"It is clear to me that despite the best efforts of many of us who work here, and outside advocates like Color Of Change, Facebook is choosing to be on the wrong side of history."

In response to employee allegations and an advertiser boycott, Facebook's company line all summer was,

"We don't profit from hate",

...directly contradicting what Hughes, Kendall, and other former Facebook insiders have said about the company.