Episode 12: She Spent 10+ Years at the CIA. It Didn’t Prepare Her for Life at Facebook.

First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.

Yael Eisenstat: When I left the CIA, it’s you can’t talk about anything classified, which is essentially an NDA. They never said you can’t say anything negative about us. The non disparagement at Facebook was so strong, I would have never been able to talk about even why I was hired, what I was supposed to do, and honestly, they hired me because of my voice, which took me a very serious process to find my voice after leaving a top secret world. There was no way I was gonna let this company silence that.  

Yael Eisenstat is not someone who’s gonna sugar coat it.

She’ll tell you exactly how she feels.  She’s comfortable walking right into the center of a debate. But what makes her different, is that she’s trained to analyze an argument from all sides.

Yael grew up in Silicon Valley but she left to go travel around Africa and play guitar, and eventually she returned there  – but this time as a CIA analyst. 

She’s had tea with suspected extremists. She’s been in war rooms. And sat at tables with people who were programmed to hate her. 

But, she found commonality in their humanity. 

The biggest challenge of her career didn’t come from her work at the CIA…. It came when she stepped into Facebook’s Headquarters in Menlo Park to head up their election integrity efforts.

She says her goal has always been just been to bring different people to the table to tackle tough issues. But at Facebook, she says she didn’t feel like she was given a seat. This is her story. 

I’m Laurie Segall and this is First Contact.

Laurie Segall: Welcome to First Contact. This is a podcast that explores the people and technology that are changing what it means to be human. And Yael, you have such a fascinating background. I’m going to just say a bunch of the really cool things that you’ve done just so we can get them out of the way, and then we’re  going to go and talk about all of them. But you worked in public service for 13 years. You worked in the CIA on counterterrorism, so I think there are things you can tell me and things that you can’t tell me, because you got-

Yael Eisenstat: I’ll shoot you a look that nobody who’s listening will be able to see and that goes, “Don’t you dare ask me that?” (laughs).

Laurie Segall: Yeah, it’s like they tell me but you’ll have to kill me kind of thing. Um, you served as National Security Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, and then you moved into the private sector and, uh, you worked in corporate social responsibility as a strategist at Exxon Mobil. Um but why I think you’re here with me today is because you made an entrance into the tech community and you were the Global Head of Elections Integrity Operations at Facebook for all of six months, from June 2018 to November 2018. So there’s so much to, to kind of dig into. But first let’s talk about our first contact.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: We just had our first contact recently.

Yael Eisenstat: Yep.

Laurie Segall: It happened late at night, right?

Yael Eisenstat: It did. 

Laurie Segall: How would you describe it? How would a former CIA agent talk about our first contact?

Yael Eisenstat: Okay, first, I’m going to say not agent, but a former CIA officer.

Laurie Segall: Okay. Mm-hmm.

Yael Eisenstat: So you know that there’s those few people in life that when they tell you you need to meet someone, or they say … you just say yes, those are few and far between because I usually don’t say like, “Sure, yeah, intro,” without knowing who it is. But a mutual friend of ours texted us both at like 11 o’clock at night and said, Laurie, Yael, you need to know each other.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: No last names, just Laurie, Yael. So I text you back..

Laurie Segall: But we did have a, a nice text messaging chain going on. I was like, “Is it inappropriate that I just am messaging her at midnight on like a Saturday?” But then I was like, “Whatever.”

Yael Eisenstat: And then we decided maybe that’s why John thought we should know each other because we’re both late night people, and apparently, are okay with texting at midnight.

Laurie Segall: Totally. So that was our, our first contact. So I want to get to, all the stuff you, you did at Facebook, but let’s start with your background. You grew up, in Northern California, right? You grew up in Silicon Valley area?

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah, correct.

Laurie Segall: But you did not immediately go into tech.

Yael Eisenstat: No.

Laurie Segall: As a matter of fact, you kind of like shunned tech to a degree.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah, I mean, I never thought I’d go into tech. Yeah, I grew up in Los Altos Hills, I think before all the tech bazillionaires discovered Los Altos Hills.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Yael Eisenstat: But yeah, tech was never really my interest. I mean, I grew up in a time where like the owners of Atari lived down the street, test their games out on us, and like everyone in our school’s parents were like CEOs of some like Hewlett Packard. So it was around us constantly, but nobody in my family has a tech background, and it wasn’t, wasn’t my interest at all. I’ve  always been very globally minded. You know, when I was 14, I think, about that time, I do remember telling my parents, that I wanted to explore the world and I just didn’t want to be in this bubble. At the time, you know, I was going to high school in Palo Alto, and just down the street was East Palo Alto, and it’s a murder capital country, and I wanted to write a story for my school newspaper, and nobody wanted to hear about it. And immediately I was like, “There’s something going on here that does not align with who I am.” And my mom let me go off, well, my mom and dad let me go off, spend my sophomore year of high school overseas, and I just got the international bug and just wanted to work on international affairs and foreign policy and get out of the Bay Area.

Laurie Segall: I guess I, I kinda want to jump right into the, the CIA portion of your career-

Yael Eisenstat: Okay.

Laurie Segall: because you spent a lot of time, in Africa doing that. So how did that, how did that happen?

Yael Eisenstat: So I moved to DC for grad school-

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Yael Eisenstat: … and it was the late 90s. And again, at that time, I just knew I wanted to be involved in international affairs. It was this weird sort of post Cold War pre September 11 time period where most of us didn’t know exactly how that was all going to play out and what that means, but we knew that the world was like open and let’s run around and see how these different countries are all going to get along, and where the US’s role is going to be. So those were the things that really drew me. I actually thought I’d end up at USAID or State Department running around doing development and foreign policy work, they both had hiring freezes. So yeah, it was weird, this like weird lefty California girl with an international relations degree, the next place to throw in your resume was the CIA.

Laurie Segall: Like, what was that interview? You go in for the interview, what is … I mean, can you just like take me there. You say you’re this weird lefty California girl who just like spent some time in Africa, you’re really interested in this kind of stuff, you go in for an interview with the CIA. What, what was it like?

Yael Eisenstat: I mean, as far as I remember, I went in and just had this really cool casual conversation with one person for like an hour about Africa and, I’m sure we were doing more than just shooting the breeze. He was I’m sure assessing how I analyze situations and how … but to me, it just felt like we were talking about African politics for an hour. And then I went home and thought, “Well, that was really weird. I was just inside the CIA.” And I thought that would be my one and only day inside the CIA, and went home, and went out with a bunch of friends that night, and they called me the very next morning.

Laurie Segall: So if I’m reading between the lines, you like went out and totally just like went out to the wee hours, and then you get a call-

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: … from the CIA the next morning very early, and they’re like, “You’re hired.”

Yael Eisenstat: I mean, it’s that … well, then it’s the whole process.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: But like, “We want to make an offer.” Yeah. And then you have to go through this whole security clearance process. It’s like a full year before you actually start working. But yeah, and then it’s just there you go.

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: And so what, and so what kind of stuff did you, did you do? I mean, you’ve written and you can write about it now, so I’m assuming you’re able to talk about some of the stuff you did. But what what was your day … I’m sure every day was completely different- but what, what were your days like?

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah. So it is true I’ve written some of the things and, and you’ve probably heard about this. For the rest of my life, I am obligated to have them review things I write if it’s about my time there.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: And I abide by all those rules.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Yael Eisenstat: So I’ll talk about the things that I’ve already had approved. But yeah, I started out working as an analyst, mostly on African Affairs, on political and leadership issues, by the time the whole processing and the whole year was up, it was November 2000. So it was the week of the elections. We were at a time where we didn’t know … I don’t know if you remember the Florida debacle. But so I joined the CIA, President Clinton is still in power. That week, we have an election. We don’t know if it’s going to be Gore or Bush next. That was my first week at the agency. And then within a year, starting September 11 happens.

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Yael Eisenstat: So up until September 11, I’d been mostly working as an analyst on African issues, and for long periods after that as well, but we all get drawn into like supporting different task forces. And I mean, I did some of this like, was on the Afghanistan Task Force, meaning up at like 4:00 in the morning helping coordinate intelligence for that stuff, and like doing cartwheels down the hallways of Langley trying to stay awake, just weird, weird stuff like that. But then got back to working on Africa. And then in 2004, I actually went over to the State Department, and got in as a Foreign Service officer. And so then I went overseas for a few years with State Department and went to Kenya for a few years.

Laurie Segall: I mean, you, you seem to me the kind of person that like seems very trustworthy. Like you could just … maybe this is a weird assessment, I haven’t known you that long but I do feel like I could take you into a party where I didn’t know anyone and you could work a room, even if you didn’t want to, even if like you wanted to secretly hurt yourself.

Yael Eisenstat: Wow, that’s amazing.

Laurie Segall: Like do you know what I’m saying? Like I feel like that is you. This is my assessment as a journalist, right?

Yael Eisenstat: That’s really funny.

Laurie Segall: This is like my personality profile I’ve done on you in the couple times I’ve met you. And so this is what I’m, I’m, I’m trying to like relate this to, to what your work overseas was like, right? And some of the things I’ve seen you write. Like part of your job, I’m assuming, was to sit across from people, that maybe weren’t supposed to like you-

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: …  in really hard situations that maybe sometimes could be life or death, not just parties like I’m mentioning. I mean, could you give us some specifics of like the, the crazy stuff that you were doing out there? Like-

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah. Actually, I will say my two years in Kenya were really, completely career shifting for me, so I was a political officer when I showed up, meaning that it doesn’t sound that sexy. I’m going to show up, I’m going to work on political issues. The ambassador probably because I had spent years before that in the CIA, probably assumed that I was this big security person and decided to give me what was called the security portfolio. So I ended up doing a lot of the counterterrorism work. But I also was in charge of, I mean, we don’t like to call it hearts and minds work, but a lot of the sort of hearts and minds type stuff we were doing, in some of the more remote areas of Kenya. So, what was really amazing about that is there weren’t really marching orders, like, “Here’s how you do this,” and, you know, it’s like this young, single, Jewish female civilian who just had to figure out how to go make friends in communities, particularly along the Somalia border, particularly mostly Muslim communities. And it was really amazing actually, because I just spent a lot of time, you know, sitting and drinking tea and listening to people’s stories, and building friendships and relationships. And I, at the time, didn’t know why am I doing all this? Am I doing this right? Am I doing this wrong? But in the end, there was a method to the madness, and some of these communities that really vulnerable communities right on the cusp of like, the areas that were susceptible to outside influence, from, now we know them as Al-Shabaab, but at the time, from whatever influences might have been happening in Somalia. I can’t say that I won over all these communities single-handedly, but I can say that … put in a lot of time really just trying to build bridges.

Laurie Segall: How do you sit across from someone who might be a suspected terrorist… you’re a Jewish woman, you know, you’ve talked about, sitting across from someone who until you sat across from them thought, uh, Jews had horns, right? Like, what was your way of sitting across from these people, and creating that bridge? How did you … how do you do it?

Yael Eisenstat: Well, so to be clear, it’s not like I was sitting across from people that we knew were definitely hardoned terrorists who had committed violent acts, but part of it is also you start by building friendships and relationships with really influential people in these neighborhoods, in these villages, in these areas. I wasn’t coming with anything, right? I wasn’t coming with offers of money, and, and I was really coming to say, “Hey, I just kind of want to understand, understand you guys more.” And I know that sounds weird, but I think that’s what made it work.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. Do you have any one specific that you go back to that you remember that impacted you from, from those days?

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah, there was, there was one that I think a lot about now as well. Um, there was one moment where I was asked to host this town hall, and I had been told, after I already got there, that one individual was going to be there, and this person had spent a few years in jail. The Kenyans that arrested him for suspicion of a few things, including harboring, the terrorists behind the US embassy bombings that had happened in 1998. So I had followed this man’s trial for a few years. I mean, he was one of the people that I, as the counterterrorism part of my work, that I was really responsible for understanding and following through what was happening there. So hearing that he would be there, was the first time I really had to think about, “Well, what am I going to do? How am I gonna engage? Do I pretend not to see him? Do I …? Is he going to stand up and yell at me in front of the whole group?” Like that was, like I was nervous. And we got there and, and he sat there quietly the entire time, and other people from the community were asking questions.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm. 

Yael Eisenstat: And at the end of it, he raised his hand and so I braced myself for what was coming, and he gave this like super passionate speech thanking me for being so willing to listen to his community, and just talking about how engagement like this is the most important thing we can do to overcome mistrust. And, and it was really weird. This man made me feel at ease, and more importantly, he demonstrated to his whole community, because it’s this whole community is, for all sorts of reasons, really susceptible to outside influence, and he demonstrated to them that he doesn’t view me as the devil and that this conversation was important. So … And then he came up to me afterwards and he shook my hand, and, and it doesn’t mean that I think he’s a wonderful person now.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: Um, it doesn’t mean any of that. And to be clear, some of the charges against him were always a little bit unclear. So this isn’t like the most hardened terrorists that we know killed people. That would be a different situation. But that interaction is actually what I first wrote about the first time I ever sort of spoke out publicly about, “Wow, I used to be able to actually engage with people who were that different for me and have real conversations.” And, and I think about that a lot now when I see that I kind of struggle speaking to Americans anymore about things I disagree about. So I’m trying to figure out the model going back to, what did that look like? Why was I able to talk to him but now I don’t want to engage with people anymore. What, what has changed?

We’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, but when we come back, we’ll hear why — after 17 years of hiding it — Yael spoke publicly speak about her past as a CIA analyst. Also if you like what you’re hearing, make sure you hit subscribe to First Contact in your podcast app so you don’t miss another episode.

Laurie Segall: Now to kind of put on my tech hat, a lot of this, we can put against the landscape of social media, right? Because you couldn’t have had a more human experience when you were, um, doing your work, uh, your public service work, right? And then in the meantime, you have social media and this incredible thing happening over the last decade of social media, which is supposed to connect all of us, and, and something has happened where we have less of an ability to speak to each other than ever, it seems to me. And you, at one point, made the shift and started speaking more openly about some of these things. A lot happened in between. Because we’ll get into the fact that you actually went and worked for Facebook, but, but, but what got you interested in looking at technology and its role in civil discourse?

Yael Eisenstat: Sure. So, when I was back in the US, I mean, I had left government at this point already, starting to watch this breakdown in civil discourse ahead of our last election, so it was probably around 2015, and I’m watching this and I’m watching people just getting more and more angry, and just this inability to even talk to people anymore. And, and to me, it just felt like something really different. And again, we’ve always, yes, anger and polarization has always been a part of the US, and, and the media has … especially with the advent of the 24 hour cable news networks, has always pushed this and the outrage machine and all those things, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet. But something was very different and actually started to concern me to the point where I completely stopped paying attention to all these threats I’d worked on overseas and started really actually thinking that the biggest threat to the future of our democracy as we know it is actually ourselves, and it was actually this breakdown of civil discourse. And so started writing about it and started digging in a bit. And that’s what started getting … tech conferences and whatnot started inviting me to speak. And I remember first going, “Why would I speak at a tech conference? I’m not a technologist.” And what was so interesting is when I started to speak at conferences, it sounds so simplistic, but I would always come back to, “Are you guys at all engaging with people who are not like-minded? that, that to me is such a concern how we are engaging less and less and less with people who are not like-minded in every possible way. 

Laurie Segall: And so you’ve always had to be like, very, very careful, but even though you seem to me like someone who just like really wants to say certain things. I’m sure it was really great for you when you kind of came out and you kind of like publicly outed yourself, right, from the, the, see … Like, how did this come about publicly? I’m sure that for you, like being able to like have a voice must have been kind of great, rewarding and scary.

Yael Eisenstat: It was great and terrifying at the same time- Because … So I, as you’re gathering, I am not shy about stating my opinions, particularly if those opinions are about something that I’m truly concerned about and concerned about for something more than me.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Yael Eisenstat: But talking about my CIA past was never part of the plan. And I mean, I’ve worked really hard to reinvent myself as a private citizen, and, yeah. So I, I don’t want to go too down a political road here, but, some people might remember that the very first thing President Trump did on his first day in office was to go give a speech at the CIA, and he gave a speech in front of the wall of stars. And there were many, many things about that speech that really terrified me. I mean, he stood in front of the wall of stars, bragged about his inauguration numbers. That was where that whole scandal happened. Also one of those stars behind him was a colleague of mine who had died in service. So that was the night I just got really upset and realized I have a voice here.

Laurie Segall: But why was that … Can you tell us like why is that personal? I mean, obviously, it’s personal because it’s a colleague who died, but like watching a president talk about that. Can you explain to us why that, you know, what’s so-

Yael Eisenstat: Sure.

Laurie Segall: … um, what’s so personal about that to you?

Yael Eisenstat: Well, there were, there were a few different elements. First, there is leading up to the elections, a president who’d been denigrating public servants, and particularly the intelligence community. And the funny thing is I’m not some great defender of the CIA. I am critical of many things from the institution’s past, but I do believe in our democratic institutions. And so I’d already been concerned with you have a president who is purposely denigrating these institutions for his own purposes because these are the institutions that could probably hold him accountable in the future. So, that was the first piece. It was one thing when he was a candidate, but the fact that was the first thing he did as president was to go there and made a bunch of statements that were both disrespectful and scary. The disrespectful ones were standing in front of the wall of stars, which, for the CIA, is like hallowed ground. And presidents in the past will go give talks at the CIA, but they’re not for the press, they’re not for media, they’re not for publicity, they are to thank the men and women of the agency for the work they do that the public will never know about. And he stood there, again, with this backdrop as a prop, and bragged about his inauguration numbers, and then pointed to everybody in the crowd and made a joke, “Who here voted for me?” Like those are the types of things a dictator asks. Like to ask the intelligence community, “Who here voted for me?” Like these are the little things that maybe some people didn’t see how dangerous they were, but to me, they were really foreboding for what was to come. So all of those things combined, um, I knew I had a voice, and a background, and a platform that not everybody gets to have-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: … and I also knew I knew how to write about it in a way that when you read the piece, you don’t know if I’m a democrat, or republican, or conservative, or liberal. You just read the piece, and recognize what service means and why this was so disrespectful. So yes, I wrote a piece in The New York Times that night and op-ed about his speech at the agency. So again, I was trying to actually put a human face on an organization that, love it or hate it, is still full of human beings,-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: … um, many of whom really want to protect this nation. So that’s why I wrote that piece. But yeah, then all of a sudden, my 17-year secret was out.

Laurie Segall: How’d it feel?

Yael Eisenstat: It was terrifying. It’s funny. I was very scared up until that moment. More scared than many things in my life that should have scared me. Like I’ll run around along in dangerous places, I’ve had guns drawn on me. Like, whatever, that’s just, that’s just who I am. But outing my secret, which shouldn’t need to be secret, I wanted it to not be a public talking point, that was scarier. But then the next day, you know what? It was like a cloud was lifted, it was like a weight was lifted. I suddenly found my voice. My friends did not disappear. People didn’t judge me terribly because of the way I decided to speak.

Laurie Segall: You thought your friends would disappear knowing that you were in the CIA or?

Yael Eisenstat: I mean, you’ve … Yeah, I don’t know. You think that people are gonna judge you, people are gonna … I mean, there’ll be ex boyfriends who will say, “You lied to me.” Well, yeah, I did. I did lie to you, you know. But-

Laurie Segall: Yeah, but they’re ex now.

Yael Eisenstat: Just … And this stigma in your head, and yeah. 

Laurie Segall: Well, so I want to talk about Facebook, because I’ve spent a large part of my career covering Facebook and seeing, you know, the good, the bad, all of it, and all the nuance that comes along with it. So I think it’s really interesting that you, having your background, I, I think the company needs people that didn’t grow up in Silicon Valley, that have different backgrounds. So I, I can imagine they would have jumped at, at having someone who has a different perspective, who spent a lot of time, you know, humanizing, having these face to face conversations with folks. So, talk to us about how you, you landed at Facebook. I think you said something like, “I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg didn’t set out to destroy democracy,” I think you said something like that, like a pickup or something, like you said it on a podcast.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: And, the next thing you know, you get a call from Facebook, to potentially, to potentially come work for the company, and, and you ended up going to work for the company. Explain to us, um, you know, what that was like and, and some of your expectations and what you hoped to accomplish going in?

Yael Eisenstat: Sure. So yeah, I was doing a podcast interview and and yeah, so on that podcast, I said, “I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg set out to destroy democracy, but I question who he has at his decision making tables and I guarantee you it’s no one with my background.” Aand what I meant by that, is, all the focus on having computer scientists, and engineers, and … CFOs, and financial people, and money people, and people who know how to basically cover all the legal sides of governance are always at the table. People who I consider, like myself, maybe you would call me more of a cost center than a revenue generator, because I’m the person who’s saying, “Have you thought about how this is going to affect that? Have you thought about …” So those people I don’t believe are usually at the table. And so that’s what I meant by that comment. And then, you know, during the interview process, I was very, very clear. “I use your platform. I like Facebook. I like what it’s offered me and I like the fact that I can keep in touch with my friends around the world. I’ve lived all over the world, but…” The few things I asked is, first of all, “Is there support for me to be here?” Because I’d done this before. At Exxon, I’d gone in as the outside the box hire, that was completely different from the rest of the team, who was asked to help the company think through their corporate social responsibility strategy differently. I’ve been there, and you don’t walk into a role like that unless you know there’s actual support for that person. Otherwise, you’re just being set up to fail. So I was very clear. “Is there support? Do you guys really want this? What does my team look like?” I wasn’t begging for the role, and they said everything I wanted to hear. I still pushed back but they said it all, “You can hire your team. You will tell us what you need. You’re going to build the strategy for this team.” All of that. And it was actually one minute after Zuckerberg’s hearing ended on The Hill that day, the famous Senate hearing.

Laurie Segall: I was there.

Yael Eisenstat: So one minute after that one, the famous, “How do you make money hearing,”-

Laurie Segall: Yeah. For our listeners, the senator asked, “Well, how does Facebook make money?” And there’s like this epic, just like this-

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: … you just wanna like, I don’t know, facepalm. It’s like, “Well, we sell ads.”

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: This is like in and of itself, like the moment when people started understanding-

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: … the lack of knowledge too, to a degree, that Washington had, but also those famous words, “We sell ads,” 

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah. And it was one minute after that hearing ended that the recruiter called me back and said, “Well, we’ve all agreed we really want you. We’ve created a new role for you.” And it was this big, shiny title. And it was Head of Global Elections Integrity Operations, which was a lot to sort of digest. I think I was silent at first and then she asked if I was still there.

Laurie Segall: What a moment to be offered that job. I mean, let me get a little inside baseball with folks. Like to be offered that role, at a time where Facebook is under this much scrutiny for what was happening with Russia and ads and all this kind of stuff, at a time when Zuckerberg is testifying for the first time on Capitol Hill, I mean, that’s an extraordinary title and an extraordinary role. Just, anyway. Okay. So back to you.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah. That’s why I think I was silent at first.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: And again, just to clarify one more time, it was within business integrity, which as you said, that means the ads,-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: … that means it’s, it’s figuring that part out.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: And obviously, this was the moment where if I meant what I said, I had to say yes. If I meant that I truly believe this company is a bi- is one of the biggest threats to our democracy, and they are asking me to play a part in helping figure out how to change that, I had to say yes.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Yael Eisenstat: So I did. And I started, I think in June, and, uh,-

Laurie Segall: This is June of 2018.

Yael Eisenstat: June of 2018. Came in on day one, which is orientation, it’s drink the Kool Aid day.

Laurie Segall: Different than the CIA, right?

Yael Eisenstat: Totally different orientation.

Laurie Segall: Lots of snacks. There’s lots of snacks, for those who don’t know.

Yael Eisenstat: The Facebook 15 is real. I put on 15 pounds while working there. But it was all very happy and very upbeat. And a lot, I mean, the average age would definitely have been at least 10 years younger than me, but there were some older, and I do remember just sitting there feeling like, “Well, this is not my first rodeo. This is not my first job.” It, it felt a little bit like a cultish indoctrination a bit. But any, I mean, in a way, any company has to kind of do that on day one, right? Make you really excited.

Laurie Segall: In what, like in what sense?

Yael Eisenstat: It was just all positive,  and very upbeat, and very exciting, and a lot of the sort of, “This is your company now,” implying that all of you are equally powerful here, bottom up culture, which I did not actually find to be true at all when I worked there, but they like to continue to propagate that sort of talking point. So that was day one… And then day two, I had my first conversation with my boss. And I specify this talking point because I don’t know what I could have possibly done wrong yet, I don’t even know that I was logged on the system yet. And day two my boss let me know that, “Oh, things have changed. I’m changing your title. This is actually … you’re, you’re just, you’re a manager.” And I was like, “I’m a manager of what?” And all sorts of weird things. “We don’t use head of here, so that was an inappropriate title.” I was like, “Really? I could probably name a lot of people on Facebook whose titles are head of, I also have my offer letter, it’s what it says.” So immediately on day two, all power was stripped from me, and it just went downhill from there. Yeah. I mean, I don’t really care what my title is, I care about am I being empowered to actually help this company think differently about the future of how they’re going to deal with political interference, with manipulation, with all the things that were happening, and it’s just something I was never really given the opportunity to do.

We’re gonna take another quick break, but when we come back Yael explains why she’s actually allowed to speak openly about these issues. Well, she didn’t sign the papers that would have stopped her. More after the break. And also, a lot of work goes into making every episode of First Contact so if you like what you’re hearing I would love for you to read a review. 

Laurie Segall: What do you think was the core issue? Like, you walked in saying this company is a threat to democracy. Why? Then you were on the inside, right? Like, give me your CIA assessment, right, like, what could you say … going into the war room of Facebook, what would you say were the biggest issues you saw ?

Yael Eisenstat: So there were a few different things. Some of it, unfortunately, was just the function of who I was hired to work for. Like I’ll be very honest, because I don’t want to overstate this case. I don’t want to say that everyone at Facebook is this way.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: In fact, quite a few people that I worked with at Facebook were very excited that I was there, both some of the more senior people and a lot of the more junior people. Some of the more senior people would say to me, “When are you taking over this role so that we can like really move this forward?” I will say that part of it was a function of the office I was hired to work into. But that said, there were lots of other things as well. Part of it is making the … and this is not making any excuses. I’ve lots of criticism about the company. Part of it is the messiness of a company that just doesn’t seem to want to grow up. Like these are not children anymore, right? This is a company that has the most profound impact on how over two billion people communicate around the world, right? This idea that the first person to throw spaghetti at the wall should still be the person who gets to beta test something is ridiculous. This is a company that needs to grow up. Now they claim they’re in their teenage years. I’m sorry, you have the biggest impact in the world on how we communicate. I think you skip your teenager years and you become an adult. So some of it was just that. It was just the chaos of still having this culture of, okay, they took break things off of the move fast and break things, but the move fast was still there. I mean, I did do work, I just was drowned in chaos all the time to keep me away from actually doing what I was hired to do.

Laurie Segall: What does that mean?

Yael Eisenstat: I repeatedly would say, “Why am I not in the meetings about the things I was hired to come do?” And I would say this, and I’d put it in writing. So there’s a meeting today to talk about the upcoming midterm elections and exactly what we are not going to do on situation X in political advertising. Why am I not in that meeting?

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: And other people would always say, “Why aren’t you in this meeting?” And the boss that I worked for would just not let me go to any of those meetings.

Laurie Segall: Huh.

Yael Eisenstat: So there was that, but yet I would be sent all over the world to go do things that I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. We go to India, we come back from India, and the example of the move fast thing. I remember we were all talking about one particular thing we are going to incorporate into our political ads process for India and I was the first person to answer the email and said, “Well, here’s what I saw.” “Great. That’s what we’re doing.” Now, I would love to think it’s because they thought I was so smart. It was because I was the first one to answer. If that makes sense, that’s the move fast thing. And it’s funny actually, one of the, one of the criticisms about me when I received feedback, was that I don’t answer my emails fast enough. And just to be clear, it’s not … we’re not talking weeks or months, I always answered within the day. So I remember sitting down with my boss, I said, “So I don’t answer my emails fast enough?” She’s like, “No, people are starting to get frustrated that you don’t answer these critical questions fast enough.” And I said, “Well, these critical questions, the answer will actually affect the lives of human beings in these countries that we’re making these big decisions about. So when you ask me that question, I am going to talk to everyone who’s worked on this before, I’m going to figure out what all the different options are. I want to make sure I’m coordinating across the different silos at Facebook, so that when I give you my answer, it’s really well thought out, and that might take two or three hours.” “Well, that wasn’t fast enough.”

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Yael Eisenstat: So that was a major issue.

Laurie Segall: Like what kind of critical questions are we talking? 

Yael Eisenstat: I mean, that I’m going to be a little bit careful, even though, and it’s important to know the reason I speak about this is because I would not sign the non disparagement agreement.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s really important for folks to know, because people should know, and I know this having spoken to, and had to speak to people anonymously. When people leave these tech companies, you know, they are asked to sign papers in order for them to get severance and money and all this kind of stuff. They are not allowed to say anything.

Yael Eisenstat: Right.

Laurie Segall: You refuse to, to sign the papers, right?

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah. And sorry, I, I realize that sounds like a dramatic shift, but it’s, there’s a difference between an NDA and a nondisclosure, which is why I’m not going to get into the details of the-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: … like some of the questions. So yes, of course, we all signed NDAs.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: But NDAs, uh, I’m almost hesitant to go into too much detail because I don’t want Facebook to change this. But NDAs, generally are about intellectual property, about not stealing company secrets. They’re very much written for engineers, mostly.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: On your way out, if they’re going to try to offer you a severance, they give you the same paperwork and they make it seem like they’re giving you the same paperwork, but if you read it carefully, there’s an extra section, which is the non disparagement. And the non disparagement, I have never seen any, anything like that before. Even the CIA didn’t make me sign anything like that when I left. Like when I left the CIA, it’s you can’t talk about anything classified, which is essentially an NDA. They never said you can’t say anything negative about us. The non disparagement at Facebook was so strong, I would have never been able to talk about even why I was hired, what I was supposed to do, and honestly, they hired me because of my voice, which took me a very serious process to find my voice after leaving a top secret world. There was no way I was gonna let this company silence that. So that was sort of an aside. But, so I did not sign a non disparagement agreement, which is why I can talk about some of these things, but which is why you see me self selecting when going through actual details of like, what were the questions in those emails?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: So I mean, some, I don’t know, they would be details like, like we’re thinking through what will the policies be for this particular election. And although I wasn’t in charge of policy, per se, I was on the operation side of how will we actually, you know, do this, I was on the strategy part of that, and it’s convoluted. Facebook just has way too many people working on the same thing, which is part of the problem, um, to be honest. Like there are probably 50 people who would tell you, “She wasn’t the head of elections integrity. This person was.” Right? And I would say, well, maybe this is the type of product we should use for identification to verify political advertisers in this country. It doesn’t mean I have gone through every single possible piece of research to figure out if that is absolutely the right thing to do, and what are the pros and what are the cons, well, “This is what we heard when we were in this country.” And it was like, “Great, that’s what we’re using.” And I was like, “Well, we, the, what if the government doesn’t …” There’s still more questions. So after that experience, I slowed up a little bit on my responses and listen… Actually, I will say when I was at the White House … I know that sounds like a weird transgression, but when I was at the White House, when I was working as one of, um, on the national security team for Vice President Biden, I remember I only got two pieces of advice from somebody there when I first started. That was it. That was my whole job training. And one of them was, “Don’t ever give an answer to the vice president if you don’t know the answer,” which is like CIA 101. You do not give an answer until you have absolutely exhausted every possible way to make sure that’s the best answer. And so apparently, me trying to do that for Facebook, a company that has such a profound impact on the world meant I was too slow.

Laurie Segall: Wow, that’s interesting.

Yael Eisenstat: So I just think personally, I think slowing down would, would be … I, I think this rush to go dominate every other space, personally, I would ask the company to fix your core product before you rush to dominate every other space. And I know you have to be fast in the sense that things are happening in real time, but if I take three hours to answer an email instead of five minutes, don’t you think that it’s worth it if at the end of the day we’re talking about how this is going to impact a country’s transparency ahead of their elections?

Laurie Segall: What do you think now looking at, looking at the political problem, what do you think is the, the core of the issue? Is it microt- I know we, we speak about like this idea of, should political ads be banned?

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Is the issue more this idea of micro-targeting to certain populations? What do you think it is?

Yael Eisenstat: So it’s interesting because if you really think about it on the advertising side, it’s actually, if I were to look at a macro level of the things I’m concerned about, about at Facebook, political advertising is actually not the thing I’m most concerned about. That said, not only is it very important, but it is actually the issue that, in my opinion, really shows who Mark Zuckerberg is willing to be in his reaction to this latest controversy over the last few months.

Laurie Segall: What do you mean?

Yael Eisenstat: So the idea of should politicians be able to lie in, in ads, right? That is what sparked the latest controversy that everyone’s talking about, and that’s what sparked me to finally stand up and write a piece about my time at Facebook.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Yael Eisenstat: Now, the easiest most gut reaction is to say they should just not allow political advertising on their platform. And I, it was actually one of the questions I was asked when they interviewed me for the job to begin with. “Do you think we should stop allowing political ads?” Because-

Laurie Segall: They asked you that question?

Yael Eisenstat: They did. And, and I didn’t know I was being interviewed for an elections job yet because the job didn’t exist yet. And I remember saying during the interview, “I don’t think we should ban political ads,” we, I wasn’t there yet. “I don’t think you should ban political ads because I think about things in a global scale, and I’m thinking about the countries where the governments actually have a monopoly over information, over news, over TV, and if you ban political ads, you are actually giving the power to the people who already have the most access to information or to the, to control over information.” And so now we get to this question, and I still don’t think banning political ads is the answer, especially … Listen, unfortunately, and this is something the Democratic Party and all the people on the Democratic side screaming about what to do now are going to have to really think about very carefully. Whether you like this tool or not, if you were to ban political ads right now, you would absolutely be handing all of that power to the incumbent because the incumbent already has the organic reach, already has the following, already has all the data. But separate from that, what do I actually think the bigger problem is? It is the idea that, it, it is the ability to micro-target us down to a level where … I mean, I’ll,I know that a lot of your listeners are more tech savvy, but sometimes I like to like describe this in a way that two people who know nothing about tech will understand. And so I always point at like two people and say, “You guys probably both live in the same city, maybe you even live across the street, but the two of you, if you both use Facebook, there’s a very good chance you are seeing two totally different versions of a political ad from the same candidate because of the human behavioral data they have gathered on you and the way you’ve been targeted by that particular campaign.” So if the two of you, who live across the street from each other, receive two totally different versions of truth, how can the two of you debate this candidate at all? How can the two of you debate what you do or do not think is right ahead of going and voting? You can’t, because you don’t even have the same version of truth. And it’s one thing to say in organic content, but you are taking … Facebook is taking money for ads, they are selling these tools that are giving people who are the most sophisticated at this, the most incredible information warfare tools. They’re giving people the ability to hyper-target us. I- it’s one thing to say, “Wow, you seem to really like fashionable boots based on what you’re wearing right now,” which, by the way, Laurie is wearing really fashionable boots right now.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: And I know you live in New York, and I know like these five other things about you, so we’re going to serve you ads that are going to match those boots. That’s one thing. Those same tools that personalize and customize things for you so that you’re seeing the ads that make you happy, are we sure those same tools should apply to political discourse? Are we sure that those same tools should allow us to see totally different versions of truth when it comes to the most important tenet of a democratic society, which is the voting booth, which is voting our, our leaders into power? So it’s funny when you hear Mark Zuckerberg say, “I don’t want to fact check political leaders and political candidates because it’s not my job to fact check them.” Okay. But you’re going to provide them tools to be able to send you and me two totally different versions of truth and you’re going to take money for that? Like, how do you reconcile that?

Laurie Segall: I mean, I remember when everything happened with Cambridge Analytica, thinking like, “God, like, the question is like, also when does micro-targeting turn into manipulation? Like, how far can we go?” especially with like the amplification of a lot of this stuff. I think that’s super interesting and, and such a more nuanced question of whether we should ban political ads or not.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah. And I mean, in a beautiful, perfect world in the future, maybe. Right now, ahead of 2020, I think we need to give all candidates the same tools because unfortunately, that’s where we are. so I don’t think we should ban it all together, but I do think we should limit some of the more dangerous things that are both distorting reality, that’s rewarding the most salacious content- … that’s allowing the most hate-filled lies, you know, then people start sharing ads. So then it basically becomes organic content. And now the most outrageous ones go viral because that is how the entire system is built, right?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: To addict us, to engage us, all of those things. So when it is, again, coming to selling you boots, I really don’t care. When it is coming to selling you who to vote for, I do.

Laurie Segall: So you were a national security advisor to Biden, so I want to role play for a second here. You have been on the inside of Facebook-

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: … for six months.

Yael Eisenstat: Yep. Right.

Laurie Segall: Just as if like, and, and just like in the past where you would go into these, these zones and you would sit with people and have tea and talk and assess the situation. So now let’s, let’s role play. Now I want you to give me your, uh, your assessment of the situation, having been in for six months of, of what’s going on there and what you think needs to happen. Where do we stand on national security? You said it was the greatest national security threat. Where do you think we stand? What’s the assessment?

Yael Eisenstat: I think there are lots of people who actually in the company do, in their core, believe that what they are doing is the right thing and want to do the right thing, so I want to start with that.

Laurie Segall: Okay.

Yael Eisenstat: Um-

Laurie Segall: So you’ve started with the good news.

Yael Eisenstat: I start with the good news.

Laurie Segall: Thank you.

Yael Eisenstat: You’re welcome. But that said, the biggest thing that I saw there, is that everything that they seem to be doing was about pushing responsibility onto others, you know, whether it’s … I even think the content moderation board that they’re setting up is a bit about pushing responsibility onto someone else instead of proactively taking responsibility for the thing you built and for how it’s being used. So there’s a lot of whack a mole approaches, right? Like I do think that some of the security stuff they’re really trying to beef up. I’m sure Nathaniel Gleicher, who I think is a great guy, is really trying to do what he can on the security side. But a lot of … especially in like in the election side of it, a lot of it is whack a mole, right? It is, “Okay, you told us this is bad. Maybe we need to go take this down. Oh, was this hate speech? Should we take it down? Should we not take it down?” None of those things are addressing the core underlying systemic issue of this platform, and that is it is a platform that is using our human behavioral data to segment us more and more into these tribes of who we are that are putting us in these little different buckets in order to target us with ads, and in order to do that, you have to keep us engaged. And so you’re like figuring out every possible way to not nudge us, to push us, to persuade us, to manipulate us, to keep our engagement there. And so all these whack a mole approaches, none of them are addressing the systemic issue, which is the business model.

Laurie Segall: Did you have those conversations when you were inside?

Yael Eisenstat: Never.

Laurie Segall: Did you never bring that up?

Yael Eisenstat: I mean, I, I just … One time and one time only with someone very senior, did I, we were traveling and I said to the person, I was like, “Okay, I get it. We’re doing all this whack a mole stuff right now and we’re trying to figure out how to deal with this election. But do you ever like just actually sit back, and have you ever actually sat back and had the conversation about who does this company actually want to be? Who do we want to be in this space?” And this person admit that, no. So no, I mean, I don’t remember ever having those conversations.And I’m not saying these conversations don’t happen. They didn’t happen for me. But as long as your company continues to report out user engagement metrics so that Wall Street will continue to reward you, then you are not in any way actually listening to what so many experts on the outside are telling you it’s actually your core problem. And to me, that’s, that’s the biggest thing. Every conversation I was apart of was always sort of like, “What’s the quickest way that can scale, that can, you know, that’s easy to scale?” Well, you know what, when you’re talking about elections, and when you’re talking about, election interference and political manipulation and all of that, it might not scale, because the way a Russian wants to interfere in the elections in the US is going to be a very different situation than the way somebody wants to inflame ethnic tensions in India, and the idea that I have to come up with a solution that scales globally is part of the problem.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: But, you know, it’s funny also. There’s this … you know how like people like to joke about people who always say they’re busy sometimes it’s because they like to say they’re busy. So at Facebook, I really felt like everyone always wanted to say how overwhelmed they were, and, and I was sitting around, I just remember, second day, actually, and I was having lu- second or third day, and I was having lunch with a group of vets. Um, so it’s like a group of vets and a former CIA officer, and we’re having lunch and we were all laughing about this. And I said, I asked them, “You know, people keep coming up to me saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you must be so overwhelmed right now. This must be the most overwhelming job in the world for you.'” And then we all went around the circle and to- told our laughing stories because this has happened to everyone at Face- every one of us at Facebook. And I was like, “No, you know what’s really overwhelming? is when you know there’s a US hostage and you have a certain amount of time to like coordinate the intelligence and try to find that person in that country and help the US, you know, military go and rescue that person. That’s overwhelming.” Like, this is not overwhelming.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Yael Eisenstat: Um, and each vet would like make a joke about that. They’d be like, “You know what’s overwhelming? When you’re in war in Iraq and …” So, it was that culture of like always chaos, always running around, everything’s constantly … “Well, things move fast around here.” Like, “Oh, we changed your job title because things move fast around here.” Again, things don’t have to move this fast. Yes, their people have to respond to things quickly, no question, but who’s slowing down and having that strategic conversation of rather than constantly being in PR threat here, can we actually listen to some of these people from the outside who are screaming at us about what the actual underlying causes are, listen, how much money is enough money?

Laurie Segall: I want to say like, why did you leave? Were you, were you pushed? Were you fired? Was it a choice? It happened after six months, so I can imagine-

Yael Eisenstat: It’s kind of all of the above.

Laurie Segall: Okay.

Yael Eisenstat: A few months in, after a particularly egregious moment-

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Yael Eisenstat: … particularly egregious with, just, I won’t go into that particular detail. I finally went to HR, and I know in a company like this when you go to HR that HR protects the company, not you. Um, and I knew that, but I wanted to document it. So I went to HR, I told them exactly what was happening, and then I said, “You guys hired me to help you work on one of your biggest challenges here. You hired me because you know how much I care about this and the experience I bring. Let me do the job you hired me to do. I am still deeply passionate about helping this company think through this work, but I cannot do it in the environment you’re setting me up in. So either you find somewhere else in this company for me to do the work you hired me to do or I walk” So, did I quit? No, because then they find the reason to push you out two months after you have that conversation. So I don’t know. Did I kind of say I was gonna quit and then they figured out how to push me out? I guess I got fired or I quit, I don’t know.

Laurie Segall: How did it feel?

Yael Eisenstat: Oh, it was, it was nasty. Like the, the way the last day went was particularly nasty. But listen, I’ll never be that person who can say I didn’t at least try, and even now, listen me speaking up about some of these things is still about me trying. And so I’ll at least be that person who can at least say I tried. I, I would say one piece of advice I would give to them is to engage more with their critics. I do think they’re under this like constant, “We’re under fire,” mode. “Nobody understands us.” It, it is. It will be honest. It is a little bit cultish there, right? It is a little bit you’re constantly, just constantly under this, you know, tech utopian, we’re connecting the world, and that’s a good thing, and that’s a good thing, and that’s a good thing, and we’re so mission oriented because we’re connecting the world. I didn’t see a lot of self-reflection of, “Maybe we’re not doing the right thing here.” And I get that. It’s very hard to say that to yourself and then reconcile that you still work at a place, so I don’t even blame people for that. But I do think it would be really worthwhile to engage with some of your biggest critics, because if your biggest critics are doing, are criticizing you while trying to highlight how you could do better, it’s not because they just love criticizing, it’s because for some of us, we fundamentally want you to get this right. 

Laurie Segall: Did you think your work at the CIA kind of properly prepared you for your time there?

Yael Eisenstat: Not at all, which is so funny. I mean, it should have. So here’s the other thing, it should have, if they had allowed me to do the job the way I wanted to. Because a CIA analyst is going to come, look at the past, assess the mistakes that were made along the way, go deep, dig into all the evidence out there, then think through how do we not make these mistakes again, then go through all the different scenarios and, and plan out all the scenarios.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Yael Eisenstat: So that is the way I would think you should approach a role like this. Unfortunately, it was made very clear to me by a number of people, “Don’t actually look backwards when you come into this role. Don’t actually make anybody feel that they are personally responsible for doing anything wrong. Don’t actually blame anybody for anything they did in the past.” So you’re telling this former CIA officer to come into this role, but not to look under the rugs and not to help try to figure out how we got here. And yes, there’s some people at Facebook in some of the research shops that are like diagnosing some of the mistakes of the past, but it was very clear to me that I was not supposed to talk about anything they’d ever done wrong. So no, I mean, my CIA training would have prepared me to look at everything we had done wrong and then try to figure out how to not do that again.

Laurie Segall: That was messaged to you.

Yael Eisenstat: By a few people. People I, I … And like even before I accepted the job-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Yael Eisenstat: … a friend of mine who was in a pretty big role there, that was that friend of mines number one advice. During the interviews, make sure you don’t kind of say anything that makes anybody feel too defensive. “Don’t actually bring up the Cambridge Analytica thing or the past or the mistakes.” And I’m like, “Wait. What?”

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Yael Eisenstat: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: You know. Having met you briefly and having looked at some of your stuff, it seems like you have been on this constant journey for your voice, maybe, not talking about it behind the scenes and having this whole, you know, like talking to people your whole career, and, and taking things in, and then having, you know, this moment where you come out and say, you have something to say and you’re going to say it publicly for the first time, and that’s going to have a lot of personal impact on, on you and your relationships, and then, you know, going and joining Facebook. And it just seems like you have something to say and you’ve given up money to say it, because-

Yael Eisenstat: That’s true.

Laurie Segall: … I know, having covered, uh, technology and knowing people who don’t sign those agreements give up, oftentimes, a lot of money. What do you, sitting here now, what do you want to say?

Yael Eisenstat: Oh, wow, that’s a really big, great but big question. Um, right now, in this moment, I just, I want people to realize that it’s not … there’s so much noise and so much debate, and it’s so ideological right now, and none of these things, like the whole freedom of speech versus censorship, all of these are not the right nuanced way to talk about these things. For me, it’s what are your core values? You still have a choice. Is it more important for you to protect the future of, not just our democracy, but of our cognitive capabilities, of our abilities to see the humanity in our fellow citizens? Of all these things, can we get to a place where that is as important as profit? And if we can, then we can get to the conversation of how do we make that happen. And to do that, we need to get out of our silos. I know there’s so much talk about diversity in tech or the lack of diversity in tech, I would really want people to consider, in addition to racial and sexual diversity and socioeconomic diversity, it’s also cognitive diversity and diversity of experience. If you continue to just surround yourselves by people who also are engineers, and computer scientists, and, you know, investors, and people who are completely 100% steeped in either lawyers or money, why aren’t you bringing more people to the table who have fought in war zones, who have actually worked in refugee camps as humanitarian assistant workers, who have seen the real world impacts? Bring those people to the table and have them help you think through things differently. I still don’t see enough of that in any of these companies.

Laurie Segall: What have you learned about people in your work?

Yael Eisenstat: What have I learned about people? I think we … this is gonna sound so cliche, but it’s empathy. Like if you cannot actually look a person in the eyes, learn their story, and empathize with where they are coming from, then you won’t get to the point of being able to figure out how to find solutions to things that you’re both struggling with. And recognizing that most people, not all, but most people who now you’re being pitted against and being told to hate and screaming at on Twitter, if the two of you could just sit down and have a conversation, you’ll realize that at the end of the day, you probably have some shared values, or shared ideals, or shared dreams. And so it’s really getting back to how do we empathize with people.

There’s no question Facebook has done much good in the world. That its connected billions of people. It’s the company line… but it’s also a reality. 

There’s also no question that this company has some major issues. 

As someone who’s covered Facebook for a long time, I’ve heard a similar narrative from people who have left. Many people, not just Yael, have said they’ve had trouble raising hard questions within. 

I’ve heard this rhetoric many times – certain people in charge don’t want to hear bad news. 

I think that one of the only ways we move through these complicated issues in tech is by surrounding ourselves with people who don’t think like us. Who don’t look like us. Who don’t necessarily agree with us. 

In the news industry, rigorous debate behind closed doors about stories and how we should cover them is common. Most of the time, we come out stronger for considering all sides. 

Now I know this debate gets lots of lip service in Silicon Valley, but does the talk match the action? How do things actually play out? Who is at the decision making table? 

There’s a difference between wanting to do good and fostering an environment for people who have different backgrounds and different viewpoints to actually have an impact. 

This will be one of the biggest challenges for the tech industry moving forward. 

We know this is an issue, we recognize it, but how do we create an environment that allows people who aren’t in the Silicon Valley bubble to impact policy, impact product, and most importantly, try their hand at bettering humanity?

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First Contact is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media executive produced by Laurie Segall and Derek Dodge. This episode was produced and edited by Sabine Jansen and Jack Regan. Original theme music by Xander Singh. 

First Contact with Laurie Segall Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.