From whistleblower bashing to the biggest tech meltdown in years, Facebook employees describe unprecedented turmoil.
Facebook had a bruising few weeks of controversy, but Mark Zuckerberg went out of his way not to show it.
Instead, the 37-year-old billionaire chief executive spent Sunday, October 3 going sailing. He posted a video on Facebook of his wife Priscilla Chan and his friends cutting through glorious blue waves off the coast of what appears to be Kauai, where the couple owns a ranch — noting that the video was shot with Facebook’s newly released video-camera Ray-Ban sunglasses.
It was a world away from his key lieutenant Nick Clegg, a UK politician-turned-Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs, who spent the same day being grilled on CNN over his employer’s products’ impact on everything from political discourse to teenage girls.
After nearly a month of non-stop news coverage over a damaging trove of leaked Facebook documents detailed in the Wall Street Journal, Sunday was set to bring a new twist: The former Facebook employee who had started the whole thing was due to come out of the shadows and go public on “60 Minutes” television program; the coming week, she was scheduled to appear in front of Congress.
Within Facebook, the mood among many employees was that of an army under siege. Many considered Frances Haugen, the former Facebook program manager who leaked the documents, to be less of a heroic whistleblower than a thief and engaged in “corporate espionage,” current employees told Insider. The media, which was reporting every new development in the story, was regarded with equal contempt by many.
There was frustration and resentment about the situation among some employees, even as Zuckerberg modeled a calm, almost detached demeanor; the unflappable captain steering the ship through choppy waters. But the coming days would bring a level of chaos to Facebook that even Zuck could no longer ignore, and that reverberated across all of the company.
“It really is quite a week,” one employee said understatedly.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.
The whistleblower reveals herself
Haugen’s appearance on “60 Minutes” on Sunday was the first time most employees learned the identity of their former colleague turned whistleblower.
There’s “lots of bashing the whistleblower,” said one current employee who is critical of the company.
Haugen’s entrance onto the public stage was a carefully planned affair, with a personal website and Twitter account lighting up simultaneously on Sunday. (In the space of a few days, she’s gained 61,000 followers and counting.) The manner of this reveal irked some inside Facebook, who have questioned who is supporting Haugen. “She had a PR team, a GoFundMe … most of that hasn’t been looked into,” said a longtime employee, describing it as a “pretty big source of frustration for people.”
Sensitive to the optics of attacking the messenger, Facebook management has tried to keep everyone in line. Employees were soon instructed not to criticize Haugen publicly, especially anyone who had worked directly with her.
By the time of Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview, Facebook employees were inured to weeks of negative news coverage and accustomed to watching the company awkwardly juggle internal morale-boosting duties with outward-facing damage control.
“Our tools and products have a hugely positive impact on the world and in people’s lives. And you have every reason to be proud of that work,” Clegg told employees on Friday, in an internal memo leaked to The New York Times. (There’s now an expectation that any internal memos will promptly leak to the press: “They are making sure to streamline comms as they know it will get out,” an insider said.)
Just days earlier however, Facebook had capitulated to pressure and “paused” plans to launch a controversial kids version of Instagram. Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s boss, broke the news to senior leaders at a “subdued” meeting, according to a report from The Information, before posting it on his feed and appearing on the “Today” show. (He still said Instagram Kids would still be “good” to have.)
Facebook employees went to bed on Sunday night knowing only that the coming week would bring more of the same. More Haugen. More negative news articles.
Then came total chaos.
The day everything broke
On Monday morning, one Facebook employee was working from home when he lost his connection to the company’s internal systems. Perplexed, he called his broadband provider Xfinity to find out what was wrong with his internet. Nothing was.
It was an experience likely repeated across many of Facebook’s 63,000 employees, who use an internal version of Facebook called Workplace to perform many of their job duties.
Just before midday Eastern Time, Facebook had suffered a catastrophic technical failure on an unprecedented scale. The company’s entire suite of online apps, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus were knocked offline for six hours. The apps, which have more than 3.5 billion users combined, were down for everyone, not just employees. And they were down everywhere in the world.
Facebook’s stock fell off a cliff, tumbling 5% and wiping out roughly $47 billion in market value.
After all the drama over the whistleblower, the outage hit Facebook like a flash flood. Because Facebook’s internal tools were affected by the outage, its efforts to diagnose and fix the problem were stymied, the company later acknowledged in a blog post about the incident. Some employees working at Facebook offices reportedly even had trouble accessing physical locations and opening doors to conference rooms.
“We got a call … saying ‘We’re having issues, we don’t know what’s going on, but don’t freak out,'” an advertising agency executive said, describing his conversation with his business contact at Facebook. “Even he was like, ‘I’m not sure what to tell you, our key cards aren’t even working in the offices,'” the executive said he was told by the Facebook employee.
Many Facebook employees were left twiddling their thumbs, unable to communicate with colleagues via their usual apps. Some enjoyed an impromptu“snow day,”while others with more meeting-heavy schedules were able to switch to Zoom and other third-party tools. Still others took to Blind — the anonymous work-focused social network that requires users to verify their employer using email addresses — to complain that the disruption would ultimately mean more overtime work. “I cannot work and have deadlines, which means I have to work OT these coming nights,” one worker said.
As the meltdown caused mayhem around the globe, frustrated users vented about Facebook on rival social network Twitter, to the exasperation of many employees. There was “some wry commentary on the fact people were so mad at us hours earlier,” a current employee told Insider.
“It reinforced the feeling, you can’t win no matter what you do. They hate us, but hate us when we’re gone.”
Internal speculation about a cyberattack eventually proved unfounded: Facebook ultimately said it was the unintended result of “routine maintenance.”
Haugen speaks again — and so does Zuckerberg
As Facebook employees got back to work on Tuesday, Frances Haugen took her turn before the US Senate, testifying for more than three hours. Some of her former colleagues also took the time out of their days to watch from their home offices in Menlo Park and beyond, while others knuckled down with work and tried to block out the noise.
In the Capitol, Haugen reiterated the central thesis of her leaks: that Facebook and its executives know about the problems Facebook helps ignite and proliferate, from political lies to anorexia, and don’t do enough to stop them. And much of that decision-making comes down to Zuckerberg, she said, even if he had kept out of this particular fray. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself,” she told Congress.
One Facebook insider described the view among their colleagues that Haugen “is a business person profiting off corporate espionage while accusing Facebook of serving shareholders which is the obligation of any publicly traded company.” (A “total narc,” one employee said on the anonymous workplace forum Blind.)
Other insiders have also questioned her credentials, and the fact she didn’t directly work on all the issues she has discussed. It’s a line pushed by Facebook’s PR team, which despite the edict to refrain from publicly attacking Haugen, characterised her as having “worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, [and] never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives” in one tweet.
Even Zuckerberg was spurred to action. By day’s end, he broke his silence on the situation in a lengthy note to Facebook staff that was then posted to his own Facebook page (perhaps preempting inevitable leaks) in which he said that “many of the claims don’t make any sense.”
“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We have an industry-leading research program so that we can identify important issues and work on them. It’s disheartening to see that work taken out of context and used to construct a false narrative that we don’t care.”
Employees are frustrated with PR
Employees bullish about the company’s mission were glad to see the CEO’s response, late as it was. A veteran employee said that “the number one question” they had been fielding from people under them was: “What is the company’s defense going to be?”
The impact of the reporting continues to be felt internally. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Facebook has “delayed the rollout of new products as it evaluates their impacts and potential PR risks. (It’s unclear what specific products have been affected: One employee Insider spoke to said they weren’t aware of any slowdowns in their part of the company.)
The same day, the CEO of CrowdTangle — a social media analytics tool acquired by Facebook in 2016 — announced he was leaving. Reports have swirled that senior executives are frustrated that CrowdTangle’s data makes the social network look bad, and his departure was interpreted by some as a blow for transparency.
The company’s defenders acknowledge the impact the endless news cycle can have on employee morale, and say leadership is trying to buoy it: “A lot of these have been through a lot before … I think it’s probably harder for some of the newer people.”
And the company’s approach to PR remains a headache for some, multiple sources said, while others wish the company would proactively share more internal research to get ahead of future issues.
“FB’s PR sucks because they haven’t been able to manage debacle after debacle and run a tight ship, like, say, Apple,” an anonymous Facebook worker told Insider in a direct message over Blind.
Public discourse throughout the week has also slammed Facebook. The Atlantic suggested the social network should be treated like a “hostile foreign power.” After the outage, Stephen Colbert joked: “Facebook did not say what might be causing the outage. Now, I’m no computer expert, but my theory is a just god.” And New York Times columnist Kevin Roose proclaimed that Facebook is in a “slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize.”
Facebook shares, even after Monday’s plunge, are still up more than 22% over last year with a market capitalization of $930 billion. And advertisers aren’t fazed, said the ad industry exec: “Not one client was like, ‘Holy shit did you see ’60 Minutes?’ … No one ever looks at Facebook like, they are a good company, let’s go with them.”
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has switched back to other matters. His most recent public Facebook post is about a Facebook-built robot that can wrap powerlines in fibre-optic cables.