On Thursday morning, the list of former Facebook employees speaking out against the company grew. And this may be the most high-profile, anti-Facebook statement yet. In a scathing op-ed for The New York Times, cofounder Chris Hughes, an early spokesman for the platform, called for the social network to be broken up. (Though he declined to drop out and move to Palo Alto, after graduating from Harvard he moved west and took a full-time job on Facebook’s product team.) “Hughes was the poet among the teenagers who created Facebook,” is how a 2009 Fast Company profile described the cofounder, who didn’t code. His role was more philosophical in nature; he thought about what users would want, how the site would make them feel, and how the team could execute on those ideas. Early on, when the creators wanted to take Facebook beyond college students, Hughes was against the idea; he thought it would hurt the intimacy the network had built for its users.
Hughes left Facebook in 2007 to work for the Barack Obama presidential campaign. He was heralded for his adept use of social media to invigorate supporters—to, effectively, make Obama’s campaign go viral. But then, in 2016, another presidential campaign “went viral,” and President Donald Trump was elected. It soon became clear that it’s just as easy, if not easier, for Facebook’s power to be harnessed for hate-mongering and misinformation as it is for hope and change. At the same time, the platform’s increasing disregard for user privacy was becoming more and more obvious. “The company’s mistakes—the sloppy privacy practices that dropped tens of millions of users’ data into a political consulting firm’s lap; the slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric, and fake news; and the unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention—dominate the headlines,” Hughes wrote in his New York Times essay. “It’s been 15 years since I cofounded Facebook at Harvard, and I haven’t worked at the company in a decade. But I feel a sense of anger and responsibility.”
While Hughes’s indictment of Facebook is arguably the most impassioned, he isn’t the first cofounder in recent years to publicly oppose the company in one way or another. In 2018, it was revealed that Dustin Moskovitz, who left Facebook in 2008 to launch the productivity software company Asana, was the largest donor to Color of Change, a partner of the Freedom From Facebook coalition that supports a U.S. regulatory breakup of the social network. (Color of Change is also one of the George Soros–supported groups that reportedly caused Facebook to launch a PR attack against the billionaire.) When asked in 2018 about his thoughts on Facebook’s mounting struggles, Moskovitz declined to answer directly, but did say: “I do think it’s nice to have a straightforward business model [with Asana] where you create something valuable for companies and they pay you for it. There’s a lot fewer rough edges, I guess, since we’re not a content platform. We’re really providing infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, the famously fired Eduardo Saverin distanced himself from Facebook more than a decade ago. Saverin gave up his U.S. citizenship and built a venture capital firm based in Singapore. He still has a 2 percent stake in Facebook, and in a March Forbes interview said the company remains “incredibly close to my heart” and that he’s proud of what Zuckerberg has built. But in 2018, Saverin also forecasted that regulation is coming. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of the type of regulation,” he said, while also pointing out that federal legislation should help smaller companies that are trying to compete with behemoths like Facebook.
Moskowitz’s and Saverin’s statements and actions pale in comparison with Hughes’s incredibly pointed attack. In his op-ed, Hughes wrote that Zuckerberg isn’t a bad person, but that he’s human, and it is dangerous for one human—especially one who’s demonstrated an unbridled commitment to the pursuit of growth at whatever cost—to control so much. “Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use, and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking, or copying it,” Hughes wrote. Despite calling the CEO’s power “unprecedented and un-American,” Hughes says he has remained friends with Zuckerberg over the years, last visiting him shortly before news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. But it seems he’s burning that bridge to loudly call for government regulation—regulation that goes beyond the FTC’s coming $5 billion fine. The opposition against Facebook, and against the absolute power of its CEO, continues to gain momentum—and also includes the voices of some of its most influential and supportive employees. And perhaps more significantly, Zuckerberg’s friends.