Sometimes the best conversations you can have are with people who aren’t in the room. Over the past few weeks, no one has been the focus of more of my conversations than Mark Zuckerberg. So when I sat down last week with Frances Haugen and Zamaan Qureshi, Zuckerberg was high on the list of topics.
Haugen, you remember, was the Facebook employee who was a product manager on the civic integrity team. Before that she was at Google, Yelp, and her own startup. But the more she saw inside Facebook, the more worried she became, sure that Facebook wouldn’t make the right decisions to protect teens. She ended up leaving with pages of inside data, which she gave first to the Wall Street Journal, and then in testimony before Congress.
So I asked her, now that 43 states Attorneys General have filed suit against Facebook, and Arturo Béjar has followed in her footsteps to become a whistleblower, what would she say to Zuckerberg?
“I would ask him: Hey, dude, you are not happy, right? You're not happy. You're going in on public things like on public podcasts and saying things like, 'When I look at my phone in the morning, it feels like getting punched in the face.' You're not happy.
"You have functionally infinite money. You are a smart person and you are so young. You're like really close to 40 [Zuckerberg is 39]. Why don't you go out and pursue greatness, right? Like you're still going to get dividends from Facebook. You know, you can do anything. Is this is this the hill you want to die on? Like, go solve malaria, go fix climate change.
"You can do it. Like, why don't you just go pursue greatness? Let go. Let someone new take the reins.”
So Haugen didn’t pull any punches.
Then I turned to Zamaan Qureshi, an activist and advocate for safer social media for teenagers and young people. An American University senior, Qureshi describes the current state of affairs as “a mental health emergency largely driven by the addictive design of social media."
What would he say to Zuckerberg? “Mark, how do you want to be remembered? The writing is on the wall. We've already started with the big tobacco analogies. Are you going to be like the Big Tobacco CEO? Do you want to be remembered that way?”
I wasn’t expecting that. But then, the conversation became even more surprising. What about the former COO Sheryl Sandberg -- what happened to her? “Sheryl left the company under very suspicious circumstances,” said Haugen. “She kind of snuck out the door, so we want to know: Did you snitch on Mark? Tell me, Sheryl.”
Qureshi’s questions were even more pointed: “How does she think about her impact on the company and this company's impact on the rest of the world? Now thinking about the young people who have been impacted by social media in a really perverse and negative way, how do you kind of live with that experience, knowing that you have the time and the distance from the company to be able to speak up to kids about Instagram's harms? When are we going to hear from you, Sheryl?”
Both Haugen and Queshi have plans to bring a safer social media world to a new generation of young people. But to get there, they’ll need to get leadership at the platforms to do more than shrug their shoulders at the harms they’re causing.