Zuckerberg’s latest Facebook defense makes no sense

Five leaders of the tobacco industry took the oath before testifying before the Trade Committee of the American home on Capitol Hill in Washington.  January 29, 1998

Five leaders of the tobacco industry took the oath before testifying before the Trade Committee of the American home on Capitol Hill in Washington. January 29, 1998
Photography: Jessica Perrson / AFP (Getty Images))

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has released a new statement defending his company late tuesday after the testimony of U.S. Senate Whistleblower Frances Haugen. And while comparing Facebook 2020s to Big Tobacco in the 1990s isn’t new, it’s really astonishing to see Zuck making the same arguments that companies like Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds have made in the last decade 20.– arguments that don’t make much sense backwards.

Basically, Haugen claims that Facebook chose profit over the well-being of its users, and stole tens of thousands of secret internal documents to prove it. Haugen told the Senate subcommittee on Tuesday that it was the dollar stops with Zuck and that he could make the product better for humanity and safer for children if he really wanted to.

Zuck insists the whistleblower’s testimony is “illogical” and that Facebook’s “good work” is “mischaracterized.” The billionaire says the company provides a quality experience, which is why “billions of people love our products.” It is obvious that billions of people have loved and still love smoking. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

Big Tobacco companies conducted internal research and knew that cigarettes were already harmful 1950s. But they continued to insist in public, even until the 1990s, that nicotine is safe and not addictive. CEOs of large tobacco companies even said so much in 1994, testifying before Congress when Ron Wyden forced them off the line and say they thought nicotine was addicted. Everyone said that nicotine is not addictive, a pure lie.

“At the heart of these accusations is the idea that we prioritize profit over security and well-being. That is simply not true, ”Zuckerberg said in a new statement.

How could Facebook care more about earnings than the well-being of its users? If users are poor, they will theoretically stop using the product. Unless, of course, they are addicted. The argument is identical to what tobacco companies said in the 1990s. And the solution for an ever-shrinking customer base is the same for Facebook as it is for Big Tobacco in the 20th century: You need to attract a younger and younger audience.

We’re not going to copy Zuck’s entire statement simply because it’s too long and boring. Feel free to read the whole thing on Facebook if it’s your cup of tea. But below we’ve pulled out a few of the most interesting lumps, not because they stand out separately, but because they reflect Big Tobacco’s strategy from the past.

We care about research.


If we want to neglect research, why create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues? If we didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would we hire so many more dedicated people than any other company in our area – even bigger than us?

Do you know who else had a huge research program? Big Tobacco. The years when tobacco companies held a secret meeting in New York December 14, 1953 to discuss the latest research on how dangerous smoking is, they agreed to bring in scientists who will claim that cigarettes are not carcinogenic.

The tobacco industry employed scientists in the 20th century who not only said smoking was safe, but also said it was not addictive. Why would Big Tobacco hire so many people scientists and researchers?? Because they care about delivering useful products to their customers, just like Facebook does.

What about all the other things that hurt people?


If we wanted to hide our results, why would we establish an industry-leading standard for transparency and reporting on what we do? And if social media was responsible for the polarization of society as some people claim, then why do we see polarization increase in the U.S. while it remains the same or declines in many countries with equally intense use of social media in the world?

Zuckerberg argues that Facebook cannot be blamed for polarization because other countries outside the U.S. do not experience the same polarization. We have not seen this study, but assuming it exists, this tactic is identical to that applied by the tobacco industry.

Diseases other than lung cancer often kill smokers tobacco companies 20th century. What about those diseases? Why not focus on all those other factors that can kill a person? Or, in this case, why not focus on all the other reasons for polarization in the U.S. other than Facebook?

Unauthorized mixing in the product.

One of the big scandals the tobacco industry faced in the 1990s was due to the amount of unauthorized alteration of their products. The central question was whether Big Tobacco manipulates the amount of nicotine and other chemicals to make their products more addictive.


For example, one move that was called into question was when we introduced a change in meaningful social interaction in the News Feed. This change showed fewer viral videos and more content than friends and family — which we knew knowing it would mean people spending less time on Facebook, but that research showed it was the right thing to do for people’s well-being. Is this something that a profit-oriented company would do to people?

This is perhaps the strangest claim in Zuck’s last post. He basically admits that he has a large dial at his desk that can make users less angry and less engaged, which is detrimental to Facebook’s profits. And that’s more or less what the whistleblower has been claiming all along. This also applied to the tobacco industry, despite a large protest to the contrary in testimony to Congress.

Former RJ Reynolds CEO James Johnston testified in April 1994 that you can’t call cigarettes addictive because so many people have stopped smoking:

If cigarettes were addictive, could nearly 43 million Americans quit smoking, almost all alone, without any outside help? The answers are obvious and that is exactly my point.

Today, even Big Tobacco companies admit that smoking is addictive and harmful to public health. But it wasn’t until 1994 that they sang a different tune.

We want what is best for you.


The argument that we are deliberately pushing content that angers people for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers keep telling us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know of any technology company that produces products that make people angry or depressed. Moral, business, and production incentives point in the opposite direction.

Deeply illogical? Zuckerberg has basically admitted that he can push content that angers people whenever he wants. Maybe he should go back and read his last two paragraphs, especially the part where he said, “we knew it would mean people spending less time on Facebook, but that research showed it was the right thing for people’s well-being.”

Regulate us, please


Similar to balancing other social issues, I do not believe that private companies should make all the decisions themselves. That is why we have been advocating for the updating of Internet regulations for several years. I have testified in Congress several times and asked them to update these regulations. I have written descriptions that describe the areas of regulation that we think are most important in relation to elections, harmful content, privacy and competition.

Facebook is probably Philip Morris of Big Tech, the biggest player in the game. Facebook is asking Congress to regulate Big Tech, just as Philip Morris eventually asked for regulation of Big Tobacco. Why would the largest social media company do such a thing? When you’re the biggest player, regulation helps 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, is there a Facebook lobbyists.

No one knows what the future holds for Facebook, the company that has objectively made the planet a far worse place to live. But if the tobacco industry is some guide, Facebook is likely to start investing heavily in the healthcare industry to make money on both causing problems and selling the drug. Philip Morris recently bought a company that makes inhalers for asthmatics. Seriously.

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Naveen Kumar

Friendly communicator. Music maven. Explorer. Pop culture trailblazer. Social media practitioner.

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