Whistleblower says Facebook puts profits above user safety

WASHINGTON, 6 Oct 2021:

Facebook puts its profits before the safety of its users and hides the fact that its platforms “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” a whistleblower said in sworn testimony yesterday before a US Senate subcommittee.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on consumer protection after she leaked information over the past few days to The Wall Street Journal and after revealing her identity in an interview broadcast on Sunday by CBS’s 60 Minutes.

The 37-year-old whistleblower was recruited to work for Facebook in its civic integrity division in 2019 after working for 15 years at various tech firms – including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.

She decided to leave Facebook last November after she said she witnessed the disinformation posted on the platform after the US elections – disinformation that she said resulted in the assault on the Capitol on 6 Jan 2021 by followers of then-president Donald Trump.

In her testimony, Haugen painted a ruthless portrait of the company, saying that during the time she worked there she noted Facebook was hiding information from the public and the US government.

She accused Facebook of being aware of the apparent harm being caused to some teenagers using Instagram – which Facebook owns – and for being dishonest in waging the fight it publicly claimed it was waging against hate and misinformation.

To back up her statements and accusations, Haugen provided tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents that she secretly copied before leaving the company.

She has also filed complaints with US authorities claiming Facebook’s internal research shows that it actually amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest – and yet the firm is hiding this from the public.

Haugen said the firm is well aware of the role it plays in providing a platform that spreads and augments divisive and extremist messaging.

“The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, for our public safety, for privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook changes,” Haugen told lawmakers.

She said she decided to testify before Congress because she believes Facebook’s products – such as WhatsApp and Instagram – harm children, in addition to creating further division and undermining democracy.

She also said that because Facebook users “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.”

“Facebook knows that its most vulnerable users, people who (have been) 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, adding: “It breaks my heart, the idea that these rabbit holes can suck people down and then make it hard to connect with others.”

She also said the firm has performed tests to determine and verify how the networks’ “amplification algorithms” can lead users to stay engaged on the platform, while simultaneously shunting them onto new topics that could be harmful to users.

Haugen said congressional oversight and legislation is needed to govern the firm’s activities because, if that is not done, the company – on its own – will never stop using its engagement-based rankings. “Facebook is going to say … you’re not gonna like Facebook as much, if we’re not picking out the content for you.”

She went on to say the engagement algorithms, in many cases, create a situation in which dangerous online conversation had led to real violence – including deaths – a situation that, she said, was not simply the fault of angry or unstable individuals but was the fault of the company itself.

Haugen also said she was very concerned about US national security in light of how Facebook operates at present since the company does not allocate enough personnel to its units devoted to preventing the dispersion of messages that instigate terrorism or espionage.

She said the firm acts like tobacco companies, that is by promoting habits among minors via Instagram to get them addicted, just as tobacco firms did with cigarettes.

Meanwhile, Lena Pietsch, one of Facebook’s political communication directors, said in a statement that they do not agree with the description Haugen made before the Senate.

“She only worked at Facebook for two years; she had no employees under her responsibility; she never attended a meeting with senior managers where decisions were made and she herself testified more than six times that she had not worked on the issues she spoke about,” Pietsch said.

Andy Stone, another of the company’s political communication directors said on Twitter that Haugen “did not work on child safety issues or on Instagram or on research on these issues” and therefore “did not have direct knowledge” of the matter.

Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne also said the informer “does not know” what she is talking about, in this case referring to the accusation the social network deactivated all prevention measures it had applied before elections just after the polls last year.

“That is incorrect. We maintained several measures until Jan 6, and added new ones after the violence that took place in the Capitol,” Osborne said, referencing the assault on the headquarters of the US Congress by thousands of Trump supporters.

During the hearing, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg was heavily criticised not only for his role in making decisions for the firm but also for going sailing amid the situation.

On Sunday, before the airing of Haugen’s interview on 60 Minutes, Zuckerberg posted a video on Instagram and Facebook showing him, his wife Priscilla Chan and several friends on board a pleasure boat.

Lawmakers did not appreciate the video yesterday and subcommittee chairman Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said later that “Zuckerberg’s new policy is no apologies, no admissions, no acknowledgement. Nothing to see here. We’re gonna deflect it, and go sailing.”