Facebook Papers Are Their Own Outrage Machine

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Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, copied thousands of pages from internal documents and web pages before leaving the company. Then she shared these documents with The Wall Street Journal, who started posting about them last month under the headline “The Facebook Files”. A few weeks later, she began distributing the materials to a consortium of news agencies, including Atlantic. In this context, the files became known as “Facebook Papers”, dating back to revelations about the US military intervention in Vietnam 50 years ago – the Pentagon Papers.

But the differences between the Facebook Papers and their Cold War precursor are more relevant than their similarities. The whole mechanism of knowledge production, storage and dissemination has changed completely over the past half century. The Pentagon Papers were, in effect, one narrative: a 3,000 page history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, annotating an additional 4,000 pages of primary source material, and written to be a coherent historical record for use. internal. Journalists gained access to the secret history of the Pentagon’s intervention in Vietnam, which has become the basis for reporting on the previous two decades of US activity in Southeast Asia.

The Facebook Papers represent something different. They include, in large part, smartphone photos that Haugen took of his computer screen displaying internal research and communications on Workplace, a social network for Facebook employees. The documents reveal, in places, what the company did or did not do – it foresaw the January 6 insurgency, for example; it facilitated the atrocities abroad – but, just as revealing, they reveal the gossip, the discussions, the speech that Facebook’s own employees have generated on the operation of its products.

In this sense, the Facebook Papers reveal as much about how social media has changed human knowledge as it does about specific company accomplishments or mistakes. They don’t tell the story of an organization on its own, like the Pentagon Papers do; they show how people within a company that makes social networks behave on a social network. (Facebook’s desperate name change yesterday to Meta seems apt enough.) In other words, the Facebook Papers are ceding a victory to Facebook over the control of public knowledge: what happened within the business, and what it means to the rest of us, has been defined by social media.


Like “nuggs” or “J-Lo”, “Pentagon papers” is a nickname. Its official title is less attractive: “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”. Daniel Ellsberg and others, working for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, had been asked to compile Defense Ministry documents related to Vietnam. But the group, which worked on the task for a year and a half from 1967 to 1969, did much more than that, producing a full prehistory of the conflict.

Ellsberg, working for the RAND Corporation, copied the documents to a Xerox machine and posted the report to The New York Times in 1971. The Times published some of the articles, but only as excerpts to support their report. If you read the Pentagon Papers today (they were declassified and released in full in 2011), you can, well, read them. They contain arguments and explanations in prose; they are organized in volumes with a deliberate structure. The report’s authors called it a “document-only story – checked and rechecked with ant-like diligence.”

The report’s nickname was not entirely deliberate. When the Times published its first article on materials, its title referring to a “Pentagon Study.” The phrase Pentagon papers below, used descriptively and in order to avoid saying to study again and again. They were, after all, Pentagon papers. It is not known when the materials evolved in the Pentagon capital-P Papers, but this name appeared on a Time cover story two weeks later.

When the widespread use of computers facilitated storage and distribution, access to secret documents became less unusual. Leaks in the Internet age have taken on the mantle of “Papers”, both as a reference and as an aspiration like the Pentagon Papers. Like the soon-to-follow Watergate scandal (which spawned its own naming conventions), the Pentagon Papers represented a culmination of American investigative journalism. Thanks to a relentless detective and staunch protection of sources, reporters shed light on the shadows, revealing devious leaks.

As journalism consolidated and declined, journalists longed to recapture the magic of the glory days of the news. Publishing “papers” has become one way of doing it. In 2016, more than 11 million leaked documents listing foreign tax evasion were dubbed the Panama Papers. Later, similar dumps of similar amounts of related materials became the Paradise Papers and the Pandora Papers. In 2019, The Washington post published a series of interviews on the war in Afghanistan, obtained from the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, under the name Afghanistan Papers. These events all took place in the age of fast internet, big data and cheap storage; to hold, let alone distribute (or acquire at the request of the Freedom of Information Act), terabytes of documents was then a trivial matter. Papers were documents, and documents were files, and the more the better.

Even so, not all of these revelations either adopted or seemed to deserve the designation of Papers. Some are mere leaks: documents that would be disclosed to everyone, not just mainstream media. Papers would be reserved for formal journalistic practice, a way for professionals to distinguish their acts of access and synthesis from those of ordinary people, or even from their sources of alert. Journalists and their editors turned the leaks into golden papers. In many cases, these documents tracked what people were doing, usually in secret, and perhaps in the hope that no one would see it. But few papers would match the original from 1971. Few would demonstrate what an organization is. knew, how he thought and how he imagined this knowledge.


When the Haugen affair started, it looked a lot more like the Pentagon Papers: a wealth of documents shared with one and same respected medium. A net of stories combined to paint a picture of misdeeds and deceptions. But accounts diverged as the documents spread to the consortium. A dozen outlets, handpicked by Haugen, imposed a set of conditions, including an embargo that was lifted on Monday. Even now, the Haugen team is distributing a new and important dump of documents every day to this group – along with at least a dozen more media outlets in America who have requested access to the documents after the embargo – which must be sorted out. , interpreted and transformed. in stories. The resulting barrage is both powerful and overwhelming.

The consortium’s canon approach was devised by Haugen’s public relations team, led by former Obama official Bill Burton. In a sort of mission statement for the Facebook Papers effort, The Washington post quoted Pulitzer Center editor-in-chief Marina Walker Guevara, who said that the stories of the current era have become “so complex and so multi-layered and global” that it would be impossible to relate them without a vast global network. (The consortium itself disbanded the day after the embargo was lifted and did not coordinate on the basis of any particular history.)

Guevara may be right. Huge and fruitful work has gone into sifting through Haugen’s raw materials and then synthesizing, writing, verifying and publishing stories that tell us what they mean. How convenient, however, for this futuristic structure for investigative journalism to take the same form as the social internet itself: a global array of characters all clamoring to retrieve and process the same information as instantly as possible in order to to compete for a limited supply of globalized attention.

Haugen’s team must have thought this approach would produce the most pressure on Facebook, possibly inspiring intervention. This Hail Mary pass could still be caught in the end zone – points could still be scored in Congress – but its launch also replicated the logic of the company he’s supposed to beat. The Facebook Papers are, taken as a whole, a supersensory offer of material on a social network, produced alone, internal social network, supposed at first sight to have a meaning whose depth goes beyond their surface, and gathered as quickly as possible to generate emotions. . It’s a very small outrageous machine, which sucks the exhaust gases from a much bigger one.

A consortium reporter reading the Facebook Papers, with all his serious arguments and efforts to do better, might even begin to wonder if Facebook is so pure evil. At the very least, some of its employees clearly struggled to resolve the issues they knew the company had caused. For example, a Washington post report on how Facebook chose to amplify posts that received emoji reactions – even angry ones – explains that the company ultimately removed the same signals from the algorithm because of their prejudice. (It took a while.)

This dance between Facebook’s internal debates and journalists’ interpretation of them as withered revelations repeats the ritual that online debate has normalized: messages generate discourse that generates more and more messages that replace action, not to mention knowledge. The depth and the surface become indistinguishable, which always implies that there is more to the story, only to fall into the shadows moments later.

By 1972, after the break-up of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, a “they want to have you” mentality pervaded American culture. The Internet – the real Internet, not the cautionary tale depicted in science fiction – retained all of the paranoia of the 1970s but varnished it in the neon of the 1980s. There was a time when Internet utopians such as Clay Shirky celebrated the “collective intelligence” that emerges when thousands or millions of people come together online. Now every day is a new one matryoshka conspiracy thought doll. We’ve learned how to fend off a world ruled by angry emoji by displaying more angry emoji. Even reality must be amplified, to rise above the noise. But every move like this adds a new clamor, too, requiring even more outrage next time around to catch the wind of the algorithm and gain attention.

Ultimately, the Facebook Papers stage a confrontation between investigative reporting and conspiratorial paranoia. The Fourth State sets up a last position against the enemy who would have defeated it, and largely defeated it. But no more guns fire unless they are loaded with Internet-tipped bullets.

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