Facebook and Big Tech Are Facing Their ‘Big Tobacco’ Moment

Facebook and Big Tech Are Facing Their ‘Big Tobacco’ Moment
Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen after appearing before a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Oct. 5, 2021 (Pool photo by Drew Angerer via AP).

In 1996, the popular and well-respected U.S. television news program “60 Minutes” aired a whistleblower’s devastating account of corporate malfeasance at America’s third-largest tobacco company. At the time, an estimated 25 percent of Americans smoked cigarettes, and the idea that smoking could be linked to cancer and heart disease or produce birth defects was still a matter of public debate. That changed after Jeffrey Wigand, a biochemist who was hired to oversee the science of making cigarettes more marketable at the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation, told “60 Minutes” that the tobacco company, which he had left in 1993, was lying to the public and to Congress about the harmful effects of its products.

Big Tobacco companies knew, Wigand said then, that there was a problem, because their own research told them so, but they suppressed evidence about how cigarettes hurt public health. It was not until 1998—five years after Wigand left Brown and Williamson and two years after he had exposed its misdeeds—that 45 state attorneys general forced the company and three other Big Tobacco majors to pay out a multimillion-dollar settlement to cover Medicaid costs associated with illnesses linked to cigarette smoking. 

That was about the same time another younger future American whistleblower, Frances Haugen, was just starting high school in Iowa City. Now Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist who this week openly accused the social media company of misleading the public in complaints filed against the Silicon Valley giant with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, may go down in history alongside Wigand as one of the most consequential whistleblowers in American history.

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