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Facebook Whistleblower, Former Defense and Intel Officials Form Group to Fix Social Media

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  • A Facebook whistleblower, two former U.S. defense secretaries, several past lawmakers and intelligence chiefs are among the members of the new Council for Responsible Social Media.
  • The group, backed by nonpartisan reform organization Issue One, says it aims to address the harmful impacts social media can have on kids, communities and national security.
  • Members will meet in person on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

A Facebook whistleblower, two former U.S. defense secretaries, several past lawmakers and intelligence chiefs are forming a new group to address the harmful impacts social media can have on kids, communities and national security.

The Council for Responsible Social Media, publicly launched on Wednesday, is a project of the cross-partisan political reform nonprofit Issue One, which focuses on strengthening U.S. democracy and works with many former members of Congress on solutions.

Dick Gephardt, former House majority leader and Democratic representative from Missouri, had been involved with Issue One and helped create the council after trying to understand the roots of the country's current polarization, he told CNBC in a phone interview Tuesday. Gephardt is one of the co-chairs of the council, along with Republican former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey.

"People used to come to me and say, 'What's wrong with Congress? They can't do anything, all they do is fight,'" Gephardt said. His response, he said, was that the division comes from the people.

"Congress has to be a reflection of the people and if the people are bitterly divided, then Congress will be bitterly divided," he said.

Gephardt said he first considered whether traditional media may be contributing to the division, but figured there's always been opinion and politicization on editorial pages. After watching the documentary "The Social Dilemma," he began to believe that tech platforms could be a significant factor and began to speak with experts and read up on technology's effect on democracy.

"My experience in Congress leads me always to believe that to solve any problem in a democracy, you've got to get diverse people together, to talk to one another, to listen to one another," Gephardt said.

Some well-known names joining the council include former Secretaries of Defense Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris.

Chris Krebs, Michael Rogers and Porter Goss, who previously led the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, respectively, are also members.

The council said it aims to drive bipartisan conversation around tech in Washington, D.C., and across the country, elevate nonpartisan voices like parents and pediatricians, and advance effective solutions to reform social media. While members have already met virtually to kick off their work, they will have their first in-person meeting Thursday in Washington.

"I think things like this group are very important for providing a unified front, to get common-sense change that can really make a difference," Haugen, the former Facebook employee who leaked internal documents about the company's policies and research to lawmakers, journalists and the Securities and Exchange Commission, told CNBC in a phone interview Tuesday.

Haugen said the issues stemming from social media are truly bipartisan in nature, which could be made more clear by avoiding framing them as issues of content moderation. Many conservatives are skeptical of content moderation because they believe platforms can use it to censor certain viewpoints, though mainstream platforms have repeatedly denied they do so.

Haugen said she sees content moderation as largely a "distraction from the real path forward, which is around product design, safety by design, transparency."

It's more important than ever to design for safety rather than rely on content moderation alone, Haugen said, as platforms move toward end-to-end encryption that prevents them from being able to monitor the substance of messages between users.

"The way you keep people safe in those environments is through design, and through each other," Haugen said.

Gephardt said he sees the role of the council as a way to create informed solutions and keep the attention on these issues in Washington. He remembered some advice that a mentor gave him during his first year in Congress.

"You can never pass some meaningful legislation here with just support on the inside of Congress, you have to build support on the outside by the people for anything that you really want to pass," Gephardt recalled former Rep. Richard Bolling, D-Mo., told him. "So I guess I see this group as being just a part, a little part, of that outside pressure that's needed to try to drive something across the finish line."

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