Former Facebook elections exec says self-moderation is untenable

Katie Harbath worries Facebook's incubation of political violence is only just beginning.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol o...
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Katie Harbath, a former public policy director for global elections at Facebook, says intervention from governments and tech companies is urgently needed to avoid political violence incubating in the future. Her voice joins a near-overwhelming chorus of others echoing the sentiment.

“I still believe social media has done more good than harm in politics, but it’s close. Maybe it’s 52-48 — and trending south,” Harbath told The Wall Street Journal.

Harbath spent more than a decade at Facebook (now Meta) — beginning as a lobbyist and working her way up the totem pole — before leaving her post in March of last year. Her work at the company pushed her to create her own company, Anchor Change, to focus on finding solutions to large-scale problems created by social media.

Harbath’s is a mission that an increasing number of high-profile figures have taken on themselves as of late, thanks in no small part to the thousands of internal documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. With the dam open, disturbing employee testimonies are becoming more commonplace by the day.

Rotten to the core — Harbath’s concerns with Meta are plentiful. She says the issues here run deep — all the way back to Mark Zuckerberg. He no longer has the will to fix Facebook’s underlying issues, she says.

“I’m disappointed in leadership, and I hate the fact that I’m disappointed in leadership,” Harbath said.

One of the more pressing issues Harbath sees is that Meta’s quotidian concerns have become so overwhelming that the company no longer has the means to confront future-forward problems. Any sort of proactive planning for the 2024 presidential election she tried to organize was swiftly shut down by upper management, for example.

Here’s what noted Facebook PR guy Andy Stone has to say about Harbath’s concerns: “We thank her and wish her the best.”

Tom Brokaw and Tim Uehlinger speak with Katie Harbath at Facebook Central at Freedom Plaza on July 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

So what now? — Harbath is willing to admit that Meta has made some progress. She commends the company’s voter registration efforts and political ad transparency policies. That progress doesn’t address more pressing, platform-wide issues, though.

By the time she’d resigned, Harbath says, the vast majority of her work day was spent dealing with high-level complaints and PR crises. She finally decided to leave the company once she watched the January 6 riots unfold on TV.

“That was a key day in terms of deciding to leave,” she says. “If I wasn’t going to be able to have impact internally, I needed to go somewhere where I could actually do something.”

Harbath’s conclusion — that Facebook can’t be fixed from the inside — is a sentiment shared by many. Along with Haugen, other whistleblowers like Sophie Zhang are begging the U.S. government to take action. That kind of oversight, former Facebook employees agree, is long overdue.

But implementing that kind of third-party fix is complicated, too. Harbath hopes her work with bipartisan advocacy groups can at least get the ball moving a bit faster, before we pass the point of no return.