A Facebook whistleblower who raised alarms about several of the company’s business practices testified Tuesday before Congress after a series of incriminating revelations about the company.
Frances Haugen, a former project manager at Facebook who leaked a massive trove of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal, told a Senate subcommittee that Facebook “put their astronomical profits before people” and asked for congressional action to rein in the tech giant.
“We can have social media we enjoy that connects us without tearing our democracy apart or democracy, putting our children in danger, and sowing ethnic violence around the world,” Haugen said.
The documents Haugen released unearthed several explosive revelations about the company’s tactics in the pursuit of growth, including bids to market its products directly to children, documents underscoring the severity of the platform’s public health misinformation crisis and internal research that found its Instagram platform is destructive to young girls’ mental health.
►’Profits before people’:After Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen argued her case, will Congress act?
“The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children or our public safety for privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook changes,” Haugen told senators on Tuesday.
Facebook hasn’t outright denied any of the Journal’s reporting, but it claims the characterizations are “misleading” and has strenuously pushed back on them.
Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen testifies before the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security in Washington on Oct. 5, 2021.
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Lawmakers questioned Haugen over the implications of the documents, which come as opinion on Capitol Hill had already turned sharply against the tech giant across both sides of the aisle.
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Facebook responds to whistleblower’s testimony
Following Haugen’s Capitol Hill appearance, her former employer rebutted her testimony.
“Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives – and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question,” Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy communications, said in a statement to USA TODAY. “We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about.”
Facebook also detailed steps it has taken or called for that would protect users in an emailed statement.
“Every day, we make difficult decisions on where to draw lines between free expression and harmful speech, privacy, security, and other issues, and we use both our own research and research from outside experts to improve our products and policies,” the statement reads. “But we should not be making these decisions on our own which is why for years we’ve been advocating for updated regulations where democratic governments set industry standards to which we can all adhere.”
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Rep. Adam Schiff says Haugen needs to testify in Jan. 6 select committee
After Haugen’s testimony in the Senate had wrapped, California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said on Twitter that she deserved to be called into conversation with the House Select Committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“According to this Facebook whistleblower, shutting down the civic integrity team and turning off election misinformation tools contributed to the Jan 6 insurrection,” Schiff tweeted. “The Select Committee will need to hear from her, and get internal info from Facebook to flesh out their role.”
Haugen says she lost faith in Facebook’s commitment to protecting users after it disbanded the civic integrity team after the 2020 presidential race. Facebook said it distributed the work to different teams. But Haugen says Facebook stopped paying close attention, leading to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
– Katie Wadington and Jessica Guynn
Misinformation propeled by serving it to those who are isolated
Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, dove into misinformation on Facebook, asking Haugen how it could be addressed.
Misinformation can be spread by a small number of users, she said.
But users who are constantly exposed to misinformation – “the misinformation burden,” she called it – and “are exposed to ideas that are not true over and over again, it erodes their ability to connect with the community at large, because they no longer adhere to facts that are consensus reality,” Haugen said.
Facebook knows, through its own research, that those most exposed to the most misinformation are often isolated in some fashion – divorced, recently widowed or having relocated to a new city, she said.
Since highly engaged users may propel misinformation, she said, there could be built-in curbs on them or their posts, she suggested.
“The fact that Facebook knows that its most vulnerable users, people who recently widowed, they’re isolated, the systems that are meant to keep them safe like demoting this information stop working when people look at 2,000 posts a day,” Haugen said. “It breaks my heart, the idea that these rabbit holes can suck people down and then make it hard to connect with others.”
– Mike Snider
Parents need to be equipped to help children navigate online spaces
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen expressed concern about how many parents around the world are poorly equipped to help their children navigate the dangers of social media given the relative novelty of the technology.
“Very rarely do you have one of these generational shifts where the generation who leads — these parents — have such a different set of experiences that they don’t have the context to support their children in a safe way,” Haugen told lawmakers.
She called on schools and the National Institutes of Health to create guidelines to help parents guide children through the pitfalls of the internet.
“They don’t have the context to support their children in a safe way,” Haugen cautioned lawmakers, urging for greater aid from public institutions.
“It should be easy for them to know what is constructive and not constructive because Facebook’s research alone shows that kids today feel like are struggling alone with these issues because their parents can’t guide them,” Haugen said.
The former Facebook product manager continued that some online critics calling on parents to simply “take a child’s phone away” are unfair given the complexities of the issue in today’s society.
“The reality is that these issues are a lot more complicated than that,” she said. Haugen argued governments should provide aid to parents in navigating online platforms, like Facebook’s products, “because if Facebook won’t protect the kids we at least need to help parents to protect the kids.”
“Parents are anguished,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in response to Haugen’s testimony. The Connecticut lawmaker noted that Facebook disregarded recommendations in its internal research that sought to remedy many of the issues facing children and youth.