Facebook ‘knew what it was doing', former Google chief Eric Schmidt says

Leaked documents show that the company – now known as Meta - struggled to contain hate speech and misinformation.

A 2,268 kilogram lump of ice from the activist group Sumofus.org in Washington, DC, to protest against what they called 'Facebook's role in promoting climate misinformation'. EPA
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Facebook’s conduct, revealed in leaked documents, is “pretty concerning,” said former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, who called for companies in the tech industry to show more restraint.

Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms, “went a little too far on the revenue side and not enough on the judgment side”, Mr Schmidt told Bloomberg Television. “You can see that from the Facebook leaks that have been occurring.”

The documents – shared with the US Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress by whistle-blower Frances Haugen and obtained by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other media outlets – show that Meta struggled to contain hate speech and misinformation.

They also revealed that the company’s staff, including internal researchers, faulted it for failing to stop the proliferation of groups that fomented the US Capitol attack on January 6. And internal studies identified the potential risks of its Instagram photo-sharing app for teenage girls. The company, valued at $934 billion, rebranded itself as Meta last month.

“The disturbing thing is that people said a long time ago that Facebook was doing this, but people said, ‘well, they didn’t understand or they didn’t measure it’,” Mr Schmidt said. “And what we learnt in those disclosures is that these companies – and Facebook in particular – knew what it was doing.”

Still, Mr Schmidt said he opposes trying to regulate the tech industry. “The regulation is always either too soon or too late,” he said.

Mr Schmidt, who was chief executive and chairman of Google from 2001 to 2011 and executive chairman of the company until 2018, said: “What I would rather have is sort of proper industrial restraint,” he said.

The company’s rebranding move to Meta speaks to a new emphasis on building a metaverse – a virtual-reality social space that would eventually take over from the web and app social services of today. Meta said it will also seek to renew its appeal to younger users, with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg saying executives will “make serving young adults their North Star, rather than optimising for the larger number of older people".

The disturbing thing is that people have said a long time ago that Facebook was doing this, but people said, ‘well, they didn’t understand or they didn’t measure it'
Eric Schmidt. former chief executive of Google

Ms Haugen, a former employee, testified last month before a panel of the Senate Commerce Committee. At the hearing, she criticised the company for not prioritising the well-being of its users over profits. Mr Zuckerberg has denied the characterisations, saying they’re “just not true".

Mr Schmidt, 66, is the co-author of a new book called The Age of AI - with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and computer scientist Dan Huttenlocher – that examines how artificial intelligence is transforming human society for better and for worse.

Mr Schmidt is a technical adviser and top investor at Google’s parent, Alphabet, and is chairman of the Broad Institute research centre. While at Google, he orchestrated the acquisition of YouTube, another social service with billions of users that has drawn criticism for spreading misinformation.

Updated: November 05, 2021, 9:04 AM