Former Facebook election boss now questions impact of social media on politics

Katie Harbath has joined Facebook over a decade ago as the first Republican employee of the company’s Washington, DC office, pushing members of Congress skeptical about the young social network’s virtues for healthy elections.

Now she’s sending out a different message. After becoming Facebook’s public policy director for the global elections, Harbath left the company last year and joined a group that now advises lawmakers in Washington and Europe on legislation calling for more safeguards around social media.

In her role at Facebook, now Meta Platforms Inc., Ms. Harbath had been the face of the company on many political issues and a liaison with governments and parties around the world. She says when she stepped down in March she came to believe that unless there was urgent intervention by governments and tech platforms, social media is likely to incubate future political violence like the one in the Capitol Riot. January 6, 2021.

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“I still think social media has done more good than harm in politics, but it’s close,” she said. “Maybe it’s 52-48 and trending south.”

In this illustrative photo, the Facebook logo is displayed on an iPhone screen on October 06, 2021 in Paris, France. (Photo illustration by Chesnot / Getty Images / Getty Images)

Ms Harbath, 41, is the former top Facebook executive who now works with the Integrity Institute, a nonprofit startup founded by former employees who had worked on identification and mitigation potential societal damage caused by the company’s products. The institute now advises lawmakers and think tanks around the world on these issues.

Ms Harbath, now also a member of several Washington electoral-focused think tanks, joins a growing number of former Facebook executives who have gone public with their criticisms of the company. She says she no longer thinks of her old company, including the CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is willing to tackle their fundamental problems in any way they see fit.

“I am disappointed with the leadership and I hate that I am disappointed with the leadership,” she said of the company.

Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said Ms. Harbath “has helped represent the company around the world. We thank her and wish her the best.”

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Ms Harbath says Meta is so engrossed in daily crises that she neglects more proactive planning and her efforts to craft a plan for the 2024 electoral threats have been rejected. Among other things, she says, if technology platforms, including Facebook, don’t better distinguish between news and paid political propaganda, agents will systematically erode the distinction.

Regarding the events of January 6, 2021, for example, Facebook and other social media platforms were widely used by those who challenged the election results and organized the rallies which culminated in violence. She said the company should do more to examine both whether it could have done more to prevent violence of the kind that erupted on January 6 and what role its platforms have played in making politics more virulent.

“While they’re right not to deserve the blame alone, there should be more soul-searching,” she said.

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Mr Stone said Meta has invested heavily in her preparations for the 2020 election and continues to work on issues she has described as areas of concern.

Facebook’s policy team, led by Ms Harbath’s former boss Joel Kaplan, often did not accept changes pushed by internal researchers and staff members of the company’s integrity team responsible for assessing potential damage to users.

Documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal show that integrity staff believed the policy team often placed business and political concerns above risk to users. Facebook said it has invested billions of dollars and hired tens of thousands of employees dedicated to preventing such damage.

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A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign as supporters of President Donald Trump rally to reopen California as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen on May 16, 2020 in Woodland Hills, Calif. (David McNew / Getty Images)

“Inside Facebook, Katie was the face of the people who told us ‘no’,” said Sahar Massachi, one of the founders of the Integrity Institute. Mrs. Harbath had been “the honorable opposition,” he said; he credits him with having brought his political sense and his connections to the new organization.

Ms Harbath praises Meta’s work on voter registration and political advertising transparency as groundbreaking, and says that as a consultant she hopes to help outside groups find other ways to make social media an element healthier politics.

“People know where to place a whistleblower and where to place a loyal company spokesperson,” says Nu Wexler, who worked in the policy communications team with Ms. Harbath and is now a partner at a corporate communications company. Washington, DC. “I don’t know they know where to put someone like Katie.”

Ms. Harbath grew up in a conservative Wisconsin family in a paper town and attended the University of Wisconsin with the intention of becoming a journalist.

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After graduation, she landed a job with the Republican National Committee, where her limited blogging experience landed the 23-year-old in a role overseeing her digital campaign efforts.

Several years later, she joined Facebook, where she eventually oversaw a team of 60 employees who trained political parties in the best use of the platform and helped shape the company’s election policy. She says there was a working hypothesis across the company that greater use of Facebook would make governments more transparent and increase people’s ability to engage in public discourse.

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Ms Harbath says her doubts about the premise arose in 2016, when the elections in the Philippines and the United States and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom were inundated with misinformation spread on Facebook.

After that, Ms. Harbath says, her role shifted from primarily trying to promote Facebook as a positive force to more often trying to prevent foreign governments, criminals, troll farms and other malicious actors from en abuse.

As public criticism of Facebook mounted, she said, executives focused heavily on what was called internally defense, shaping policies based in part on whether the company would face attacks. or to external criticism. She says her work has been consumed by “escalations” – an internal term for potential public relations crises and high-profile complaints.

“80% of my time was spent climbing,” she says.

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A restructuring in her department deprived her of much of her authority over electoral politics by 2020, she said, and the company rejected her proposal to refocus its work on preventing electoral threats. before 2024, when a number of major global elections are scheduled. On January 6, she watched the riot on Capitol Hill unfold on television.

“It was a key day in deciding to leave,” she said. “If I couldn’t have an impact internally, I had to go somewhere where I could actually do something.”

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal

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