WASHINGTON — 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.
“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.
Haugen also alleged that the social media platform amplified the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol where a violent mob stormed the building.
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.
The hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security is in recess for now.
Children’s advocacy groups and some in Congress called on Facebook earlier this year to stop its work on a planned kids version of its social media app. But when Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked Haugen about the project, she doubted that work had stopped.
“I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram kKds, and I would be amazed if a year from now we don’t have this conversation again,” she responded.
Haugen said Facebook had a need to ensure the “next generation is just as engaged” with Instagram. “And the way they’ll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self regulation.”
“By hooking kids?” Schatz asked.
Haugen: “By hooking kids.”
She went on to note the research she had provided showed that “problematic use” of social media peaked at age 14.
“It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have good self-regulation,” she said. “They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram and yet I can’t stop’.”
– Mike Snider
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen discussed how the company’s use of its algorithms to boost engagement leads to dangerous levels of violence and conflict around the world, something the company does not avoid because it would harm profits.
Haugen said Facebook needed to be “less twitchy, less reactive, less viral” as it develops products if it is going to avert the worst effects for individuals and society.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Haugen about Facebook’s role in the 2020 election, during which the company briefly throttled engagement-boosting algorithms for American users ahead of the presidential voting.
“It seems that Facebook invests more in users who make them more money, even though the danger may not be evenly distributed based on profitability,” Haugen told Klobuchar.
“Facebook is presenting a false choice,” Haugen repeated, arguing that the company seeks profit through increased engagement at any cost. She said one of the major avenues for this, the engagement-based ranking of posts on Facebook and Instagram, is especially damaging.
“The choices that were happening on the platform was how reactive and twichty was the platform, how viral was the platform, and Facebook changed those safety defaults in the run-up to the election because they knew they were dangerous,” Haugen told lawmakers.
“And because they wanted that growth back, they wanted the acceleration of the platform back after the election, they returned to their original defaults. And the fact that they had to break the glass on Jan. 6 and turn them back on, I think that’s deeply problematic.”
– Matthew Brown
In answering questions from Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said there is no one at the company holding its cofounder accountable.
“The buck stops with Mark,” she said.
Facebook’s corporate strategy has led to its current trials, she added.
“The metrics make the decision. Unfortunately that in itself is a decision and in the end, (Zuckerberg) is the CEO and the chairman of Facebook, he is responsible for those decisions,” she said.
After Blumenthal called Zuckerberg “the algorithm designer in chief,” Haugen described how the CEO and chairman’s management style has led to a troublesome cycle.
“Facebook has struggled for a long time to recruit and retain the number of employees in needs to tackle the large scope of projects it has chosen to take on,” she said. “That causes it to understaff projects, which causes scandals, which then makes it harder to hire.”
That is why the company, “needs to come out and say, ‘We did something wrong. We made some choices that we regret,’ she said. “The only way we can move forward and heal Facebook is we first have to admit the truth.”
– Mike Snider
In her opening remarks, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recounted her experience at Facebook and pleaded with lawmakers to tackle the tech giant’s behavior head on.
“The choice being made at Facebook are disastrous,” Haugen said in her opening remarks, adding that many of the decisions made through its business practices and products have “led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.”
Haugen highlighted instances of radicalization on Facebook’s platforms around the world, including mob violence and genocides in many countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia.
She said the company was fully aware of its platforms’ effects on people, especially children. “This is about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs,” Haugen said.
“Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook,” Haugen said, comparing the company’s opacity to other tech giants like Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube.
Haugen said Facebook “intentionally hides” its inner workings from the American public and governments around the world in an effort to hide the effects of its company.
“Until the invectives change, Facebook will not change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices against the common good. Our common good,” she said.
Haugen called on lawmakers to intervene in the situation and reign in the social media company’s behavior, comparing Facebook’s behavior to that of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries avoiding accountability in the past.
Haugen said that because of the black box nature of Facebook’s algorithms, the government and the public are left to judge the company’s algorithms by their end result, which is less effective than seeing the technology from the inside.
“A safer, free speech respecting social media is possible,” Haugen said, arguing that the many revelations about the company “are only the first chapters in a story so terrifying, no one wants. To read the end of it.”
– Matthew Brown
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., charged that Facebook continues to put profit ahead of the safety of the children and teen users on its platform – a bipartisan issue that could unite legislators against the tech giant.
She cited research provided by Facebook after Haugen’s revelations, which found 66% of teen girls and 40% of teen boys on Instagram experienced negative social comparisons. Another finding: 52% of teen girls who experienced negative social comparison on Instagram said it was caused by images related to beauty.
“Social comparison is worse on Instagram because it is perceived as real life, but based on celebrity standards,” Blackburn said.
The resulting social media consumption cycle can lead to “a downward emotional spiral encompassing a range of emotions from jealousy to self-proclaimed body dysmorphia,” Blackburn said.
Facebook also accepts that users can become addicted, Blackburn said, using a term it “calls conveniently ‘problematic use,'” which is “most severe in teens peaking at age 14.”
“Big tech companies have gotten away with abusing consumers for far too long,” Blackburn said. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of our children and all users.”
– Mike Snider
As lawmakers and the public again train their attention on Facebook amid its most damaging scandal in years, the company’s top executives are silent.
Facebook Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is absent from the national spotlight. The company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, is also missing in action.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has said he will call on Zuckerberg to testify about the latest reports on the company’s internal research. Facebook has not yet issued a statement on whether he would testify before Congress.
Since the latest reports from the Wall Street Journal, the company’s vice president for global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, has been the main spokesperson for the company, pushing back on the latest reports.
Instagram’s top executive, Adam Mosseri, has also made media appearances since the latest revelations, including announcing that the company would halt work on its Instagram Kids project amid public backlash.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s absence from the public eye mirrors past major crises for the company, including the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal.
– Matthew Brown
Tuesday’s hearing comes less than 24 hours after Facebook and its associated apps came back to life following one of the longest outages in its history.
Monday’s outage of Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp marooned billions of users who rely on the social media giant and its apps for everything from connecting with friends to running their businesses and logging into websites.
The social network and the Facebook-owned platforms stopped working around 11:30 a.m. EDT Monday, according to the site Downdetector.com. At around 5:40 p.m., some users were able to access the platforms, but not all functions were back.
Facebook said late Monday that “the root cause of this outage was a faulty configuration change” and that there was “no evidence that user data was compromised as a result.”
– Terry Collins
Follow Matthew Brown online @mbrownsir.