Facebook Failed the People Who Tried to Improve It

By Steven Levy

“Hi, all,” reads a note on Facebook’s internal Workplace system that was posted on December 9, 2020. “Friday is going to be my last day at Facebook. It makes me sad to leave. I don’t think I’ll ever have a job as good as this one … Unfortunately, I don’t feel I can stay on in good conscience. (1) I think Facebook is probably having a net negative influence on politics in Western countries … (2) I don’t think that leadership is involved in a good-faith effort to fix this …(3) I don’t think I can substantially improve things by staying.”

This is a Facebook “badge post.” The name refers to the laminate badge employees are issued when they join the company, the one that swipes them into Facebook buildings, or did when everyone went into the office. Even more, it confers access to the world of Zuckerberg. It represents membership in a fellowship that was once was unreservedly proud but now harbors mixed feelings, shared inside newly circled wagons. When employees leave Facebook, they commonly write a badge post, often accompanied by a photo of the badge itself.

Most badge posts are fond farewells to a company that gave the departing a great work experience and a much fatter bank account. The writers bubble with optimism for their next adventure. But others are tortured missives like the one above. These people were excited to join Facebook, many of them totally on board with its mission to connect the world. Some joining more recently did so with the aim of helping Facebook address its speech and safety problem. But their experience in the trenches left them frustrated. Researchers laid bare the harm Facebook was doing, often to very large swaths of its user base. Many of those problems seemed almost intractable, but employees dutifully offered potential fixes. Some ultimately concluded that their efforts were doomed.

I found the badge post I quoted above among the hundreds of documents dubbed The Facebook Papers, disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. A consortium of news organizations, including WIRED, has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress. Immersion in the corpus provides a ground-level view of the ways Facebook causes harm. Essentially, it’s a report card on the company’s efforts to police itself, replete with failing grades. I was drawn to the people who produced most of those documents, dutifully compiling the research that proves how well the company understood the harm it caused. Several of those researchers have now left. The best window through which to understand their motivations is the badge posts they left behind.

The author of the post I quoted above was one of Facebook’s most respected researchers, specializing in political content and misinformation. (I reached out to him through a mutual friend, but he didn’t respond to my request to speak. His name is redacted on the version of the document I saw, and I am honoring his privacy.) Several Facebook employees commented under the post that they literally gasped when they read it. The researcher further concludes that despite improvements between 2016 and 2018, Facebook had a negative effect on political discourse, did much worse than other media sources, and followed policy decisions “routinely influenced by political considerations.” The post says Facebook could do much better if it had the courage to rate its posts on their objective quality, but that it fears to do so because of public pressure.

In one extreme, Sophie Zhang, who recently emerged as a Facebook whistleblower, wrote that she had “blood on her hands” from her time at the company. (Zhang’s post was previously reported on, but her epic 6,600-word memo is all there in the Papers.) Most of the badge posts I’ve seen, though, come at the end of a long internal struggle. “Researchers face a moral quandary,” one former Facebook employee told me on the phone last week. “I saw the power that the network had to uplift people out of poverty; I talked to transgender people who found communities of other transgender people. So you see the good. But you also see the bad, and I don't quite know how to reconcile these two things in my mind.” For this Facebooker, reconciliation came through quitting.