An internal dispute over Facebook’s role in spreading disinformation has led to the impending departure of a key executive.
The New York Times reports that Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief information security officer, is leaving the company due to behind-the-scenes disagreements over how much the company should share about Russian interference on the platform, as well as over changes that should be implemented before the 2018 midterm elections.
Last year it was revealed that as many as 126 million Americans, accounting for a third of the nation’s population, were exposed to content placed on Facebook by Russian sources during the 2016 elections.
According to sources, Stamos wanted to be more upfront with the public about the Russian interference, but was met with resistance by colleagues. Facebook's policy team thought Facebook should be more cautious with what it disclosed, setting up a battle between the two arms of the company. The policy group is headed by Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, reported The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the internal deliberations.
Stamos’s day-to-day responsibilities were reassigned to others in December. In January, the majority of Stamos' security team was moved into groups that were overseen by other executives, which spurred in part his decision to leave the company. His departure was deferred until August so that he could oversee the transition of his responsibilities, and because executives thought his departure would look bad for the company.
“These are really challenging issues, and I’ve had some disagreements with all of my colleagues, including other executives,” Stamos said in a statement. On Twitter, he said he was “still fully engaged with my work at Facebook. It’s true that my role did change. I’m currently spending more time exploring emerging security risks and working on election security.”
Sources say that while the security team has pushed for more disclosure about the interference, the legal and policy teams have prioritized business imperatives.
In an earlier Wall Street Journal report this year the paper noted that Stamos, who has been the security chief at Facebook since June of 2015, raised concerns a month after the 2016 U.S. election about Russian activity by alerting CEO Mark Zuckerberg via email. Other top Facebook executives were also in the email. He said then that Russians had run an information operation on Facebook. Last Spring Stamos’ team wanted Russia’s role in election meddling included in a report Facebook was publishing, but he and his team were overruled. In September, Facebook finally acknowledged publicly the role Russia had during and after the election.
“The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company,” said Sandy Parakilas, who worked at Facebook enforcing privacy and other rules until 2012 and now advises a nonprofit organization called the Center for Humane Technology.
Tavis McGinn, who now heads Honest Data, was recruited by Mark Zuckerberg last April to head the executive reputation efforts through September 2017. He left the company after becoming disillusioned with its conduct.
“Facebook cares so much about its image that the executives don’t want to come out and tell the whole truth when things go wrong,” said McGinn. “But if they don’t, it damages their image.”
As PYMNTS’ Karen Webster reported yesterday, since news of Russian interference hit the news — as well as the breach of 50 million Facebook user profiles without their permission — consumers have begun disengaging from the social media site. In fact, engagement on the social platform — in all demographics — has declined by 20 percent.
“Simply changing the algorithms and showing more posts from friends and fewer from advertisers isn’t enough to curate the image of a kinder, gentler, less money-centric Facebook, especially when what’s really going on is that fewer friends and family are posting things,” wrote Webster. “Facebook, like all social networks, suffers from the syndrome of more lookers than contributors, so losing both becomes a problem of massive proportions for Facebook since it means fewer eyeballs. Fewer eyeballs means fewer advertisers, and fewer advertisers means less revenue for Facebook.”