WASHINGTON: While accusing the giant social network of seeking profits on security, a former Facebook data scientist told Congress on Tuesday that she believed tighter government oversight could lessen the dangers the company poses, ranging from harming children to inciting political violence to disinformation.
Frances Haugen, testifying before the Senate Trade Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, presented a broad condemnation of Facebook. She accused the company of not making changes to Instagram after internal research showed apparent harm to some teens and of being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation. Haugen’s accusations were supported by tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents that she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit.
But she also offered thoughtful ideas on how Facebook’s social media platforms could be made more secure. Haugen handed responsibility for the company’s profitability strategy to security at the top, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but she also expressed empathy for the Facebook dilemma.
Haugen, who says she joined the company in 2019 because “Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” said she did not disclose internal papers to a newspaper and then appeared in front of the Congress to destroy the business or call for its demise, as demanded by many consumer advocates and lawmakers on both sides.
Haugen is a 37-year-old data scientist from Iowa with a computer engineering degree and a master’s in commerce from Harvard. Before being hired by Facebook, she worked for 15 years at technology companies such as Google, Pinterest, and Yelp.
“Facebook’s products harm children, fuel division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said. “The company’s management knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they put their astronomical profits ahead of people.”
“Congress action is needed,” she said. “They will not solve this crisis without your help.”
In a note to Facebook employees on Tuesday, Zuckerberg took issue with Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit above the well-being of its users, or pushes content that divides.
“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false corporate image that is painted,” Zuckerberg wrote.
However, he seemed to agree with Haugen on the need for updated internet regulations, saying it would save private companies from having to make decisions on social issues themselves.
“We are committed to doing our best, but at some level the right body to assess trade-offs between social equity is our democratically elected Congress,” Zuckerberg wrote.
Democrats and Republicans have shown rare unity around the revelations of Facebook’s handling of potential risks to Instagram’s teens, and bipartisan bills have proliferated to address social media and privacy concerns among people. data. But getting legislation passed through Congress is a big task. The Federal Trade Commission has taken a tougher stance on Facebook and other tech giants in recent years.
“Anytime you have Republicans and Democrats on the same page, you’re probably more likely to see something,” said Gautam Hans, a tech law and free speech expert at the Vanderbilt University.
Haugen suggested, for example, that the minimum age for Facebook’s popular Instagram photo-sharing platform could be raised from 13 to 16 or 18.
It also recognized the limits of the possible remedies. Facebook, like other social media companies, uses algorithms to rank and recommend content to users’ news feeds. When ranking is based on engagement – likes, shares, and comments – as is currently the case with Facebook, users can be vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation. Haugen would prefer the ranking to be chronological. But, she said, “people will choose the more addictive option even if it leads their daughters to eating disorders.”
Haugen said a 2018 change in the flow of content contributed to more division and ill will in a network apparently created to bring people together.
Despite the enmity the new algorithms were fueling, she said Facebook found they were helping people come back – a model that has helped the social media giant sell more digital ads that generate the vast majority of its income.
Haugen said she believes Facebook is not about creating a destructive platform. “I have a huge empathy for Facebook,” she said. “These are really tough questions, and I think they feel a bit trapped and isolated.”
But “ultimately the responsibility ends with Mark,” Haugen said, referring to Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50% of Facebook’s voting shares. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable except himself.”
Haugen said she believed Zuckerberg was aware of some of the internal research showing concerns about the potential negative impacts of Instagram.
The subcommittee is examining Facebook’s use of information its own researchers compiled on Instagram. These results could indicate potential harm to some of its young users, especially girls, although Facebook has publicly downplayed the possible negative impacts. For some of the devoted teens to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by visually focused Instagram has resulted in mental health and body image issues, and in some cases, disturbances. diet and suicidal thoughts, research disclosed by Haugen has shown.
An internal study cited 13.5% of teenage girls as saying Instagram made suicidal thoughts worse and 17% of teenage girls saying it made eating disorders worse.
She has also filed complaints with federal authorities alleging that Facebook’s own research shows it amplifies hatred, disinformation and political unrest, but the company is hiding what it knows.
After recent Wall Street Journal articles based on documents she leaked to the newspaper sparked public outcry, Haugen revealed her identity in a CBS “60 Minute” interview that aired Sunday night.
As the PR debacle over Instagram’s search escalated over the past week, Facebook suspended work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is primarily aimed at tweens ages 10 to 12 years.
Haugen said Facebook prematurely deactivated safeguards designed to thwart disinformation and incitement to violence after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election, alleging that it contributed to the January 6 murderous assault on the United States Capitol.
After the November election, Facebook disbanded the Civic Integrity Unit where Haugen worked. It was then, she said, that she realized that “I don’t believe they’re willing to invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.” .
Haugen says she told Facebook executives when they recruited her that she wanted to work in an area of the company that combats disinformation because she had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.
Facebook maintains that Haugen’s claims are misleading and insists that there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that it is the main cause of social polarization.
“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 at a decision point meeting with (senior) management – and has testified more than six times not to work on the subject in question. We disagree with her description of the many issues she has testified to ” , the company said in a statement.