Fb whistleblower testifies earlier than Senate committee
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told a Senate panel Tuesday that Congress must intervene to resolve the “crisis” caused by her former employer’s products.
The former Facebook civic misinformation product manager told lawmakers that Facebook is consistently putting its own profits above users’ health and safety, largely due to the design of its algorithms that drive users to highly interesting posts, which in some cases are more harmful can . Despite failing to accuse top executives of deliberately making harmful products, she said CEO Mark Zuckerberg must ultimately be responsible for the effects of his company.
Haugen also said that Facebook’s algorithm could turn young users from relatively harmless as well as healthy recipes to content that promotes anorexia in a short amount of time. She proposed a solution for Facebook to change its algorithms to stop focusing on delivering posts that generate more engagement and instead create a chronological feed of posts for Facebook users. This would help Facebook deliver safer content.
Haugen, who on Sunday exposed himself as the source of leaked documents at the core of an insightful Wall Street Journal series on Facebook, testified before the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee on Commerce. Haugen told 60 Minutes in an interview aired this weekend that the problems she saw on Facebook were worse than any other place she’d worked, including Google, Yelp, and Pinterest. She told the newscast that she copied tens of thousands of pages of internal research that she took when she left Facebook in May.
“I’ve seen Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our security,” said Haugen in her written testimony. “Facebook has resolved these conflicts consistently for the benefit of its own profits. The result is a system that increases division, extremism and polarization – and undermines societies around the world. “
In her prepared remarks, Haugen said she believed she did the right thing when she came forward, but was aware that Facebook could use its immense resources to “destroy” her.
“I got in touch because I realized a terrifying truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what is happening inside Facebook,” said Haugen in her written remarks. “The company’s leadership retains critical information from the public, the US government, its shareholders, and governments around the world.”
Haugen said a turning point that convinced her of the need to bring information outside of Facebook was the company’s dissolution of the civic integrity team after the 2020 US election. Facebook announced that these responsibilities would be transferred to other parts of the company to integrate. But Haugen said that within six months of the reorganization, 75% of their “baskets” of seven people, who were mostly of civic integrity, went to other parts of the company or entirely.
“Six months after the reorganization, we had clearly lost faith that these changes were coming,” she said.
Impact on young users
Much of the hearing focused on Facebook’s impact on young users. Lawmakers expressed outrage over one of the journal’s reports that Facebook’s internal research found that Instagram created a toxic environment for some teenage girls who are already feeling negative feelings about their bodies. This led lawmakers to make even stronger demands on Facebook to end plans to launch a version of Instagram for children.
Facebook accused the Journal of picking data, stressing that research showed that the majority of users surveyed found positive effects of using its products on multiple occasions, even when a small percentage felt it made their negative feelings worse.
Facebook found in a survey that eight out of ten teenage Instagram users in the US said the platform made them feel better or didn’t change their feelings about themselves. But Haugen testified Tuesday that the remaining 20% still matters on a platform with billions of users worldwide.
“In the case of cigarettes, ‘only’ about 10% of smokers will ever get lung cancer,” said Haugen. “The idea that 20% of your users could have serious mental health problems and that’s not a problem is shocking.”
Although Facebook announced a temporary hiatus on its Instagram plans for children, Haugen told Senators it would be “genuinely surprised” if Facebook stopped working on the product.
“Facebook understands that if they want to keep growing they need to find new users,” Haugen said, adding that it means children have habits.
Allegations of misrepresentation and understaffing
Along with her disclosures to the U.S. Senate and Journal, Haugen also filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Facebook misled investors and advertisers by omitting or misrepresenting its knowledge of how its platforms were used in order to provide misinformation spread, and what measures it has taken to counter this.
Haugen said Tuesday that Facebook told advertising workers after the Haugen uprising that this was not true.
Although she called on lawmakers to impose regulations on Facebook, she warned in her statement that “adaptations to outdated data protection regulations or changes to Section 230 are not sufficient”, referring to the legal shield that the online platforms against liability for the contributions protects its users. She also said she believes that a healthy social media platform is possible and that Facebook presents “wrong decisions … between connecting with those you love online and your personal privacy”.
“The crux of the problem is that no one can understand Facebook’s destructive decisions better than Facebook, because only Facebook can look under the hood,” she said in her prepared statement, saying that transparency was the right first step.
She told lawmakers that she kept seeing teams understaffed on Facebook, causing “an implicit discouragement from better recognition systems.” She said if Facebook had even a simple detector on the counterintelligence team she was working on, they could pick up a lot more cases than they’ve already handled.
Similarly, she added that Facebook could do “a lot more” to recognize children on its platform and should publish these processes for Congress. She said Facebook has the ability to spot more underage children on the platform even if they are lying about their age.
Haugen also said that while working there, the counterintelligence team tracked Chinese involvement on Facebook to track down the Uyghur ethnic minority population. She said the “permanent understaffing” of such teams was a national security issue and that she was discussing it with other parts of Congress. Blumenthal said the subject was ripe for another hearing.
“Big Tobacco Moment”
To open the hearing on Tuesday, Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chairman of the subcommittee, asked Zuckerberg to appear before the committee to explain the company’s actions. He called the company “morally bankrupt” because it opposed reforms by its own researchers.
Haugen said Zuckerberg’s unique position as CEO and founder with a majority of the company’s voting shares only blames him for himself.
There are “no similarly powerful companies that are so unilaterally controlled,” said Haugen.
Blumenthal said the Haugen revelations heralded a “great tobacco moment,” a comparison that Haugen repeated in her own testimony. Blumenthal recalled his own work as the Connecticut Attorney General suing tobacco companies, and recalled a similar moment when enforcement agencies learned that these companies had conducted investigations that showed the harmful effects of their products.
Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Chairman of the trade committee, described the hearing as “part of the process of demystifying big tech.”
Towards the end of the hearing, Blumenthal told Haugen that he believed “there are other whistleblowers out there”.
“I think you are setting a good example,” he said. “I think you are showing them that there is a way to make this industry more responsible and caring for children.”
This story evolves.
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