Facebook whistleblower appears before U.S. Congress

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U.S. lawmakers pounded Facebook on Tuesday, accusing CEO Mark Zuckerberg of pushing for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety, and they also demanded regulators investigate whistleblower accusations that the social media company harms children and stokes divisions.

Coming a day after Facebook and its units including Instagram suffered a major outage, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in a congressional hearing that “for more than five hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”

In an era when bipartisanship is rare on Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties excoriated the nearly $1 trillion US company in a hearing that exemplified the rising anger in Congress with Facebook amid numerous demands for legislative reforms.

As lawmakers criticized Facebook and Zuckerberg, the company’s spokespeople fought back on Twitter, arguing Haugen did not work directly on some of the issues she was being questioned on.

‘Jawdropping moment of truth’

Senate commerce subcommittee chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Facebook knew its products were addictive, like cigarettes. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jawdropping moment of truth,” he said.

He called for Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company.

“Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror,” Blumenthal said.

Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team who has turned whistleblower, said Facebook has sought to keep its operations confidential.

“Today, no regulator has a menu of solutions for how to fix Facebook, because Facebook didn’t want them to know enough about what’s causing the problems. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been need for a whistleblower,” she said.

‘Facebook prioritizes profit’

The top Republican on the subcommittee, Marsha Blackburn, said Facebook turned a blind eye to children below age 13 on its sites. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, another Republican, agreed. “Children of America are hooked on their product. There is cynical knowledge on behalf of these Big Tech companies that this is true,” he said.

Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and subcommittee chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, listen to Haugen’s testimony Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister said in an email ahead of the hearing that the company sees protecting its community as more important than maximizing profits and said it was not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrated that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage girls.

Haugen has come forward with a wide-ranging condemnation of Facebook, buttressed with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit. She also has filed complaints with federal authorities alleging that Facebook’s own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest, but the company hides what it knows.

‘Congressional action is needed’

Haugen says she is speaking out because of her belief that, “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” she says in her written testimony prepared for the hearing. “Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

After recent reports in The Wall Street Journal based on documents she leaked to the newspaper raised a public outcry, Haugen revealed her identity in a 60 Minutes interview that aired on CBS Sunday night.

The ex-employee challenging the social network giant with 2.8 billion users worldwide is a 37-year-old data expert from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in business from Harvard. She worked for 15 years at companies including Google and Pinterest prior to being recruited by Facebook in 2019.

The committee is examining Facebook’s use of information from its own researchers on Instagram that could indicate potential harm for some of its young users, especially girls, while it publicly downplayed the negative impacts.

For some of the teens devoted to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research leaked by Haugen suggests.

Internal study says Instagram increases suicidal thoughts

One internal study cited 13.5 per cent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 per cent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

“The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government and from governments around the world,” Haugen says in her written testimony. “The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.”

Aides confer as Haugen attends the committee hearing. (Drew Angerer/Reuters)

As the public relations debacle over the Instagram research grew last week, Facebook put on hold its work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is meant mainly for tweens aged 10 to 12.

Another key issue is the algorithms that govern what shows up on users’ news feeds, and how they favour hateful content. Haugen said a 2018 change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together. Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back — a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate most of its revenue.

Facebook calls allegations misleading

Facebook maintains that Haugen’s allegations are misleading and insists there is no evidence to support the premise that it is the primary cause of social polarization.

“Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform, we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100 per cent of the time,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of policy and public affairs, said Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources.

That’s because of the “instantaneous and spontaneous form of communication” on Facebook, Clegg said. “I think we do more than any reasonable person can expect to.”

By coming forward, Haugen says she hopes it will help spur the government to put regulations in place for Facebook’s activities. Like fellow tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple, Facebook has for years enjoyed minimal regulation in Washington.



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