WASHINGTON — A former Facebook employee on Tuesday gave devastating testimony to Congress alleging that the social media giant has placed profit ahead of the public good, and she urged the government to take action to reform the company.
“I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved these conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat,” said Frances Haugen, who worked as a product manager at Facebook from 2019 until resigning earlier this year.
“This is about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs … buying its profits with our safety,” Haugen told a Senate Commerce subcommittee, saying the company’s problems are “solvable.”
In addition to its flagship project, Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, two wildly popular apps around the world.
Haugen has been speaking out as a whistleblower in a series of Wall Street Journal stories that began appearing in that publication about three weeks ago. This past weekend she revealed her identity prior to her scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill, and she sat for an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
During the testimony, she gave confident answers in response to the senators’ questions but also declined to answer certain questions when they strayed beyond her areas of expertise. Before joining Facebook’s civic integrity team in June 2019, Haugen worked for Google, Pinterest and other tech companies.
She discussed the ways that Facebook’s own attempts to reduce the harm created by its platform are “undone” by the teams designed to increase the company’s user population and the amount of time those users spend on Facebook’s platforms.
The harm, she said, is known to Facebook because of its own internal studies and documentation, some of which Haugen provided directly to the Wall Street Journal. But the company does not share its internal information, which has to change, she said.
For example, Haugen said, “Facebook knows they are leading young users to anorexia content.” And she said the company actively seeks to attract children to its platforms, especially Instagram, because “they understand the value of younger users for the long-term success of Facebook.”
Haugen also pointed to “escalating rates of suicide and depression” among teens. Facebook has continued to seek higher rates of engagement from teens despite “a broad swath of research that usage of social media amplifies the risk for these mental health harms.”
“Facebook's own research shows that. Kids are saying, ‘I am unhappy when I use Instagram, and I can't stop,’” Haugen said. She said the platform is designed to essentially be addictive despite these detrimental effects.
Haugen also cited real-world violence, both around the globe and in the U.S., that has been linked to the flood of disinformation on social media platforms. She pointed to bloodshed in Myanmar and Ethiopia that is allegedly being exacerbated by Facebook’s design. The violence in those countries, she said, is the "opening chapters of a story so terrifying no one wants to read the end of it.”
Haugen said she was prompted to speak out publicly, ultimately, “when civic integrity was dissolved following the 2020 election,” a reference to former President Donald Trump's aggressive pushing of conspiracy theories about the election he lost, leading to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Haugen noted that Facebook changed its settings in the weeks before the 2020 election “because they knew they were dangerous” by allowing misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread widely and quickly. But the company removed those controls after the election because it reduced the amount of time that Facebook users were spending on the platform, she said, only to have to “turn them back on” after Jan. 6.
On Sunday, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, argued on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that Haugen’s claims were misleading.
"We can minimize but not eliminate it,” Clegg said of harm to children who use the company’s platforms. “And that's what we do; that's why we commission the research, and we've always been very open about it.”
Of social polarization spurred by Facebook’s content, Clegg said: “Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform, we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100 percent of the time.”
But Haugen said during Tuesday's hearing that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg could take direct steps to address the company’s problems, especially since he controls 55 percent of its voting shares. Zuckerberg, she said, claims that “metrics make the decision” about how the platform works. But that design choice “itself is a decision,” and Zuckerberg is “responsible for that decision,” she said.
Haugen called on Congress to establish an independent oversight agency that would pull Facebook out of what she called “a feedback loop that they cannot get out of.” Facebook should be required to become far more transparent, she said, and there are also “soft interventions” that can be made to the company’s design to stem the rapid spread of false and harmful information.
She said the company needs to declare “moral bankruptcy.”
“They need a process where they admit they did something wrong but we have a mechanism where we forgive them and we let them move forward,” Haugen said. “They have been hiding this information because they feel trapped. … They need to admit they did something wrong and that they need help to solve these problems. That’s what moral bankruptcy is.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Haugen’s decision to speak out was a “Big Tobacco moment … a moment of reckoning,” similar to when the major cigarette companies were exposed as having known their products were addictive and harmful.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he appreciated Haugen’s use of the “moral bankruptcy” idea, and said that years from now the detrimental effects from social media that were allowed to go on would be shocking to anyone looking back on this present moment.
“All of us are going to be saying, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’” Sullivan said.
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