Here are 4 key points from the testimony of the Facebook whistleblower on Capitol Hill
Updated October 5, 2021, 9:30 p.m. ET
Facebook is facing a historic crisis.
The revelations brought to light by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, have led to what could be the most menacing scandal in company history.
The pressure increased on Tuesday, when Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee. She gave a clear and detailed look inside the notoriously secretive tech giant. She said Facebook harms children, sows division and undermines democracy in search of skyrocketing growth and “astronomical profits.”
Past controversies over Facebook’s role in Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and the social network lax handling user data in the Cambridge Analytica case were crises that rocked the company and spurred internal reform.
But the fury that Haugen’s revelations sparked is different. Here are four reasons why.
Haugen was an insider, which made her a powerful critic.
Haugen worked at Facebook for almost two years after stints at Google, Yelp and Pinterest.
At Facebook, she studied how the social network’s algorithm amplified disinformation and was exploited by foreign adversaries.
Haugen told Congress that Facebook has always chosen to maximize its growth rather than put safeguards in place on its platforms, just as it has hidden from the public and government officials internal research that has exposed the harms of Facebook products. .
“The result has been more divisions, more harm, more lies, more threats and more fighting. In some cases, this dangerous online discourse has led to real
violence that hurts and even kills people, ”Haugen said.
Before Haugen left the social network, she copied thousands of pages of confidential documents and shared them with lawmakers, regulators and the the Wall Street newspaper, which released a series of reports called the Facebook Files.
“During my time at Facebook, I realized a devastating truth: hardly anyone outside of Facebook knows what’s going on inside Facebook,” Haugen told Congress. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, the US government, and governments around the world.”
Haugen isn’t the first former Facebook employee to worry about the world’s largest social network. But two things distinguish her: she is a convincing witness, speaking with conviction, specificity and depth. And she came armed with receipts to back her account – the thousands of pages of company documents that lay bare exactly what Facebook knew about its products.
Facebook director Monika Bickert tell NPR Morning edition that the company does not put profits before safety, citing the cessation of political advertising by the social network before the presidential election in November.
In a long blog posted Tuesday eveningFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company’s internal research had been distorted.
“It’s disheartening to see this work taken out of context and used to construct a false narrative that we don’t care about,” Zuckerberg wrote.
He said he was “particularly focused” on the questions raised about how Facebook products affect children, writing that “it is very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for children” .
Study shows Facebook covets younger users, despite health concerns
Instagram’s impact on young children was of particular concern to lawmakers on Tuesday.
Haugen disclosed a Facebook study which found than 13.5 percent of British teenage girls in a survey say their thoughts of suicide have become more frequent.
Another leaked study found that 17% of teenage girls say their eating disorders got worse after using Instagram.
About 32% of teenage girls said that when they felt bad in their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse, Facebook researchers found, which was first reported speak Newspaper.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Accused Facebook of intentionally targeting children under 13 with an “addicting” product – although the app requires users to be 13 or older.
“It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users,” she said.
Blumenthal echoed this concern.
“Facebook exploited teens using powerful algorithms which amplified their insecurities,” Blumenthal said. “I hope we will discuss the existence of a safe algorithm.”
Haugen told Congress that when researchers and outside lawmakers asked how Facebook affects children’s health and safety, the company was never available.
“Facebook chooses to mislead and lead badly. Facebook has not won our blind faith,” Haugen told Congress.
Facebook responded that other internal research shows that young people who use Instagram feel more connected to their peers and better about their well-being.
After the Newspaper, Facebook said it was suspending work on an Instagram product designed for children under 13.
Democrats and Republicans are actually united to regulate Facebook
At one point in the hearing, Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas turned to Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Moran said they should put aside partisan differences to tackle a common goal: to subdue Facebook.
On such regulation, Blumenthal said: “Our differences are very minor.”
“I share this point of view,” replied Moran.
Later, at a press conference, Blumenthal referred to the bipartisan unity during the hearing.
“If you closed your eyes you wouldn’t know if he was a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. “Every part of the country is suffering the harms inflicted by Facebook and Instagram.”
But what could lawmakers do about this damage?
Haugen urged lawmakers to look at the algorithms that drive popular features, like major feeds on Facebook and Instagram.
Algorithms reward engagement. In other words, when a post receives comments, likes, and other interactions, it is distributed more widely and appears more prominently in feeds, rather than just listing the posts in chronological order. . The engagement-based formula helps sensational content, such as posts that feature rage, hate or misinformation, travel far, she said.
“It exposes teens to more anorexic content. It separates families. And in places like Ethiopia, it literally stirs up ethnic violence,” Haugen told lawmakers. She added that the reforms should make “the platforms themselves safer, less nervous, less responsive, less viral.”
A proposal currently being discussed by Blumenthal and Blackburn would allow individuals to sue Facebook and other social media companies for damage caused by their algorithms.
Currently, a decades-old law known as Article 230 immunizes social media companies from lawsuits for what their users post, but lawmakers are looking at possible exclusions.
“I would see this legal shield and immunity reduced in order to give victims and survivors of harm resulting from Internet content a remedy,” Blumenthal said in a briefing after the hearing.
Other legislative responses include passing a national law to protect privacy and strengthen safeguards for children online, two measures that are the subject of much debate among lawmakers in Washington. But lawmakers insist Haugen’s disclosures are the necessary motivation for Capitol Hill.
Haugen opposed the Facebook breakup, a popular rallying cry in Washington. She said it would only worsen the platform’s problems by turning the social network into a “Frankenstein” that would still wreak havoc around the world, while a separate Instagram siphons off most of the ad dollars.
Haugen says Facebook broke the law
Haugen’s lawyers have filed eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission focused on Facebook’s public statements on issues, including what Facebook knew about how the organizers of the Capitol headquarters used its platform; its effectiveness in eliminating hate speech; and how Instagram makes body image issues worse.
According to Haugen’s legal team, Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, misrepresented and omitted key details about what was known of Facebook and Instagram’s ability to cause damage.
Haugen’s attorneys allege that Facebook violated U.S. securities laws by lying to investors.
The documents were also shared with state prosecutors, including the California attorney general, Haugen’s attorney John Tye told NPR.
Federal regulators and state prosecutors have not indicated how authorities plan to respond.
Facebook is stepping up the pressure on Haugen, suggesting for the first time that she broke the law. Business manager Monika Bickert told CNN Tuesday that the documents obtained by Haugen were “stolen”.
Federal whistleblower protections provide legal cover for Haugen by providing private Facebook documents to the SEC and Congress, but experts say his press leaks could trigger legal action from Facebook.
Editor’s Note: Facebook is one of the financial backers of NPR.