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Facebook’s meta-problem on Capitol Hill

Three years ago, Facebook departed from much of the tech industry by backing an anti-sex-trafficking bill that weakened online companies’ liability protections.

Behind the scenes, Facebook representatives also email aides any time their bosses mention the company in public. The company responds quickly to lawmakers’ inquiries and sets up frequent briefings between congressional aides and Facebook’s policy staffers to discuss concerns ranging from online misinformation to privacy.

These shows of cooperation with Washington have at times annoyed Facebook’s tech rivals. (In an internal memo made public as part of an antitrust suit last week, Google complained that Facebook has “prioritized winning on reputation over its business interest in legislative debates.”) But they’re not showing much success in soothing Congress.

Over the past two years, briefings with the company have become more antagonistic and less productive, the aides said. Both Democratic and Republican staffers said they’re tired of feeling that Zuckerberg and his company are condescending to them as they become better informed about its business practices.

“Mark Zuckerberg has done more to polarize the country probably than anyone else and yet despite that, the antipathy towards him is one of the most bipartisan things that remains in the country,” said one Democratic House aide.

Even Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), whose district includes part of Silicon Valley, said he is working on legislation aimed at reining in Facebook’s “AI-driven algorithms.” (That was one suggestion Haugen offered when she testified in the Senate this month.)

“Facebook must ensure its product is not causing depression, anxiety or other harm to the well-being of teenagers,” Khanna said. “I am confident our legislation will attract broad support and protect the mental and physical health of America’s youth.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has led the charge against Facebook in the Senate this month, has called out the company’s aggressive lobbying tactics — and warned that they will no longer work.

“Big Tech is going to fight us,” Blumenthal said. “They’re going to fight us with the same bare-knuckle tactics, the millions of dollars, the army of lobbyists, that they’ve done before.”

Facebook has more than a dozen internal lobbyists, including former staffers for Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other high-profile Washington figures, along with a number of former Senate Commerce Committee staffers. The company also keeps more than 15 external lobbying firms on retainer, including key Democratic and Republican operatives with close ties to Congress.

Patterson said she still believes that her lobbying colleagues at Facebook are talented — but they’re dealing with a nearly impossible situation. She said congressional staffers, for the most part, are polite but unresponsive when Facebook reaches out or respond with a curt “thanks for letting us know.”

“Most of them were polite but it’s clear we’re not in a place where they really want to hear from us and when they do, they don’t have a lot of confidence in what we’re saying,” Patterson said.

An increasing number of lawmakers’ offices are refusing to take meetings with Facebook at all, particularly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last year that she would no longer sit down with the company. (Among other complaints, Pelosi lambasted Facebook for declining to take down a video that had been misleadingly edited to make her appear drunk.)

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who leads the House Energy and Commerce consumer protection subcommittee, has declined to meet with the company’s lobbyists since Facebook filed a petition calling on Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, to recuse herself from its ongoing antitrust litigation against Facebook. Khan’s allies see the request as an effort to discredit her.

That antagonism even extends to the tech industry’s many-tentacled third-party lobbying operation — the swarms of trade associations and nonprofits that major companies including Facebook have funded for years.

Schakowsky’s office banned Chamber of Progress, a new tech industry organization led by former Google policy executive Adam Kovacevich, which counts Facebook as a member. The relationship dissolved after Kovacevich sent an email to Schakowsky chief of staff Syd Terry in May insisting that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump illustrates why social media companies like Facebook need legal protection for taking down content.

“Unfort[unately] thanks to Adam’s ‘Capitol insurrection proves we need more 230’, I won’t be reading this or anything else that comes from the other bad Chamber,” Terry said in response to an email from the Chamber of Progress in July. Terry’s email, which has not previously been reported, referred to Section 230, a decades-old law that protects online companies from lawsuits over how they moderate user-generated content.

In a statement, Kovacevich said Terry’s reply was an “outlier response from our outreach to hundreds of Democratic Hill staffers, and it predates the recent whistleblower revelations.”

“We’ve found that the vast majority of Democratic staffers are interested in having a constructive conversation about how best to regulate technology,” Kovacevich said.

Facebook is trying to divert some of its negative attention by pointing out issues with its rivals, which it says do far less to examine or disclose problems on their platforms.

In early October, Facebook lobbyists brought up Snapchat’s and TikTok’s struggles with children’s safety issues in private conversations with aides, just as Facebook was facing scrutiny for its effect on teen girls’ mental health. Just this week, the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee held a hearing featuring executives from Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube focused on children’s health, after holding a hearing focusing solely on Facebook earlier in the month. (The companies were in talks with Blumenthal’s office about a child-focused hearing before the whistleblower revelations.)

Zuckerberg had previously raised his concerns about TikTok and its ties to China during a private White House dinner with Trump in 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. Months later, Trump’s administration began a series of executive and legal actions aimed at TikTok.

But name changes and finger-pointing won’t solve Facebook’s problems, its critics say. If the company wants to salvage its reputation on the Hill, especially among Democrats, the company will likely have to make serious structural changes, Patterson said.

“Something has to change for there to be a better reception on the Hill,” Patterson said.

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