Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, the former employee of the firm who released a bombshell on Sunday when she spoke freely to “60 Minutes” about the media behemoth’s policies, charged in Congressional testimony on Tuesday that it “is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny.”
She went on to state that her former employer is well aware of the damage it has caused and continues to cause to the social fabric, telling the Commerce Subcommittee “I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
Haugen, who shared tens of thousands of pages of Facebook’s own research showing that the firm knew about an array of problems caused by its own apps, including what was termed its “toxic” effect on teenaged girls who were targeted with eating disorder content on Instagram — which it also owns.
Facebook whistleblower: Facebook and apps “destabilize democracy”
The ex-employee, in sworn testimony before the Congressional subcommittee on Monday and Tuesday, called on the legislative body to take action against Facebook.
The Harvard-educated, 37-year-old former product manager for the social media conglomerate, who once worked on “civic integrity issues” there, answered questions from Representatives regarding just what Instagram employees knew about its effects on young users, among other issues.
Like WhatsApp, Instagram is also owned by Facebook, which was created by Jeff Zuckerberg.
“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”
She emphasized that she came forward “at great personal risk” because she believes “we still have time to act. But we must act now,” she urged.
After her testimony on Monday, Facebook and all the apps it owns went down at approximately noontime EST and remained offline until almost six hours later. As of press time on Tuesday, the cause of the blackout had still not been determined.
When she testified on Tuesday morning, Haugen referenced the incident, saying “Yesterday, we saw Facebook get taken off the internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I know that for more than five hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”
Facebook refuses to fix harmful algorithms “because of financial self-interest”
She also slammed the company for acting in its financial self-interest by not fixing its algorithms. Haugen’s identity was revealed in an exposé on “60 Minutes” on Sunday evening, but she had already anonymously hared a series of documents with regulators and the Wall Street Journal regarding Facebook’s corporate policies and behavior.
The Journal published a lengthy investigation indicating that Facebook was indeed aware of issues with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation — which the behemoth had itself castigated its users for promoting.
The harm caused by its Instagram app, especially to young girls who are prone to eating disorders, also came to the fore as a result of that investigation.
“When we realized tobacco companies were hiding the harms it caused, the government took action,” the Facebook whistleblower stated to the subcommittee. “When we figured out cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action. And today, the government is taking action against companies that hid evidence on opioids. I implore you to do the same here.”
Facebook officials responded to Haugen’s remarks in the form of a statement sent to CNN Business after the “60 Minutes” interview, which said “to suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Facebook CEO Zuckerberg has himself been grilled in front of a Congressional subcommittee, perhaps most memorably in 2018, when it faced charges of colluding with the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica in sharing data from as many as 50 million of its own customers.
In his remarks, Zuckerberg, who created the social networking company when he was a student at Harvard, admitted to making a “big mistake” by not taking “a broad enough view” of his company’s responsibility in cooperating with the consulting firm.
Since then, his conglomerate has only gotten larger and more powerful, with an estimated three billion individuals across the world now customers of Facebook and its subsidiary apps.
Haugen was not completely dismissive of her former employer’s practices, however, admitting that Facebook can also be a force for good. She added that yesterday’s social media blackout “also means that millions of small businesses weren’t able to reach potential customers and countless photos of new babies weren’t joyously celebrated by family and friends around the world.
“I believe in the potential of Facebook. We can have social media we enjoy, that connects us, without tearing apart our democracy, putting our children in danger and sowing ethnic violence across the world. We can do better.”
Haugen started at Facebook in 2019 after working for the likes of Google and Pinterest. In her Wall Street Journal interview she stated that her views on social media changed over time, however, partly after she lost a personal friend because of misinformation that was spread online.
Her overall goal in laying bare the frailties of Facebook, she said, is not to bring about the destruction of the company, but to “save it.”
However, Haugen is reported to have filed at least eight complaints with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging Facebook is hiding research about its problems from not only investors but the general public as well.
The information that she shared with regulators and the Journal clearly indicated that the firm was aware of serious issues with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation — one of the problems decried by both sides in the last Presidential election and afterward.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the chair of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, said that he felt “heartfelt gratitude” toward Haugen for “standing up to one of the most powerful, implacable corporate giants in the history of the world.”
Blumenthal then stated that “The damage to self-interest and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation.”
After the Wall Street Journal bombshell, Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, was called to speak before the same Senate subcommittee. Davis, who said she was a mother and a former teacher, denied that the report had been a bombshell.
However, she refused to release a full research report on Instagram’s affect on young girls, citing undisclosed “privacy considerations.” Without going into detail, she stated that Facebook is “looking for ways to release more research.”
The renewed scrutiny on the social media giant appeared to have put Instagram off its plans to introduce a version of its app for children under 13, announcing just days before Davis’ remarks at the hearing that it would not proceed with it.
“Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself,” Blumenthal said in his statement on Sunday. “We must consider stronger oversight, effective protections for children, and tools for parents, among the needed reforms.”