Now Facebook’s ex-election chief is wondering about the impact of social media on politics

Now Facebook’s ex-election chief is wondering about the impact of social media on politics

Katie Harpath joins Facebook FB -0.20%

More than a decade ago as the first Republican employee of the company’s Washington, DC office, skeptical members of Congress pushed the young social network’s merits for a healthy election.

Now she is giving a different message. Promoted to Facebook’s director of public policy for the global election, Ms Harbath left the company last year and teamed up with a group that now advises lawmakers in Washington and Europe on legislation calling for more protective barriers around social media.

In her role at Facebook, now Meta Platforms Inc. Ms. Harbath has been the face of the company on many political issues and has a relationship with governments and parties around the world. She says that when she resigned in March, she came to believe that unless there was urgent intervention from governments and technology platforms, social media was likely to embrace future political violence such as the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021.

“I still think social media has done more than harm to politics, but it’s close,” she says. “Maybe it’s 52-48 — heading south.”

Members of Congress have likened Facebook and Instagram’s tactics to those of the tobacco industry. Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal reviews hearings examining both to explore what cigarette regulation can tell us about what might come for big tech companies. Photo illustration: Adele Morgan / The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Harbath, 41, is the former Facebook’s top executive and now works with the Integrity Institute, a start-up nonprofit founded by former employees who have worked to identify and mitigate potential societal harm caused by the company’s products. The institute now advises lawmakers and think tanks around the world on these issues.

Ms. Harbath, who is also now a fellow at several Washington think tanks focused on election issues, joins a growing number of former Facebook executives who have come out critical of the company. She says she no longer believes that her former company, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has the will to tackle its core problems in the way it believes necessary.

“I’m disappointed in driving, and I hate the fact that I’m disappointed in driving,” 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 well.”

Ms Harbath says Facebook should do more to examine the role its platforms have played in making politics more scathing.


Photo:

Shuran Huang for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Harpath says Meta is so preoccupied with day-to-day crises that she ignores more proactive planning, and that her efforts to build a plan for electoral threats for 2024 have been rejected. Among other things, she says, if technology platforms including Facebook do not draw better lines between paid news and political advertising, customers will systematically erode discrimination.

In connection with the events of January 6, 2021, for example, Facebook and other social media platforms were used extensively by those competing for election results and organizing rallies that culminated in violence. She said the company should do more to examine whether it could do more to stave off the kind of violence that erupted Jan. 6 and what role its software played in making politics more scathing.

“While they are right that they do not deserve the sole blame, there should be more soul-searching,” she says.

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

Facebook’s policy team, led by Harbath’s former boss Joel Kaplan, often did not accept the changes pushed by researchers and internal staff on the company’s integrity team tasked with assessing potential harm to users.

Documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal show that integrity staff felt that the policy team often put business and political concerns above risks to users. Facebook said it has invested billions of dollars and employed tens of thousands of dedicated employees to prevent such damage.

“Within Facebook, Katie was the face of the people who told us ‘no,’” said Sahar Masashi, co-founder of the Institute of Integrity. He said Ms. Harbath was the “honorable opposition.” She is credited with bringing political intelligence and connections to the new organization.

Ms Harbath praises Meta’s work on voter registration and the transparency of political ads as pioneering, and as a consultant says she hopes to help outside groups find other ways to make social media a healthier part of politics.

“People know where to put the whistleblower and they know where to appoint a loyal corporate spokesperson,” says No Wexler, who worked on the policy communications team with Ms. Harpath and is now a partner at a Washington, D.C. communications firm. “I don’t know they know where to put someone like Katie.”

Ms. Harbath grew up in a Wisconsin county family in a paper mill town, and went to the University of Wisconsin with plans to become a journalist.

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

Several years later, she joined Facebook, eventually overseeing a staff of up to 60 employees who trained political parties on how best to use the platform and helped design the company’s electoral policy. She says there is a working assumption throughout the company that more use of Facebook will make governments more transparent and expand people’s ability to engage in public discourse.

Ms. Harbath, who quit Facebook in March after working there for a decade, in her apartment in Arlington, Virginia.


Photo:

Shuran Huang on Wall Street

Ms Harbath says her skepticism about the hypothesis arose in 2016, when elections in the Philippines and the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK were awash with misinformation spread on Facebook.

Then, Ms Harbath says, her role shifted from trying to promote Facebook primarily as a positive force to trying to prevent foreign governments, criminals, farmers and other bad actors from abusing it.

As public criticism of Facebook has mounted, she says, executives have focused heavily on what is called internally defensible — shaping policies based in part on whether the company will face external attacks or criticism. She says her job has been consumed by “escalation” – an internal term referring to potential PR crises and high-profile complaints.

“Eighty percent of my time was spent on escalation,” she says.

She said a restructuring in its management stripped her of much of her power over election politics before 2020, and the company rejected her proposal to refocus its work on avoiding electoral threats before 2024, when a number of major global elections are due. On January 6, I watched the Capitol riots unfold on TV.

“This was an important day in terms of the decision to leave,” she said. “If I couldn’t influence internally, I needed to go somewhere where I could do something.”

write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com

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