A whistleblower testified before the US Senate on 5 October that she believes Facebook puts profit above safety.
As Facebook reels from the chaos of its large outage on 4 October, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen has taken her allegations about the social media giant before senators. Haugen, who revealed herself as the Facebook whistleblower on Sunday 3 October, has accused Facebook of several safety violations in at least eight complaints.
“Astronomical profits before people”
The complaints, originally published anonymously with the Wall Street Journal, cover a range of issues that include how Facebook’s algorithm monitors hate speech, mental health of teenagers, and human trafficking monitoring. In the WSJ reports, Haugen said the company was aware of how its products could cause harm but had not made sufficient changes – in some instances ignoring issues entirely.
Her complaints come from internal documents Haugen copied before leaving the company, which number in the tens of thousands.
In her opening statement to senators on 5 October, Haugen said:
I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. 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.
Haugen’s most recent allegation says that Facebook relaxed its misinformation standards shortly before the 6 January Capitol riots.
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In terms of mental health, she told senators that Facebook has conducted its own studies that show adolescents can easily be taken from innocent content to content promoting anorexia by the company’s algorithms. One study from the leaked documents found that 30% of teenage girls said Instagram was making them feel worse about their bodies.
She also said that Facebook has misled investors and politicians about how it has tackled harmful content.
Calling for regulation
In her testimony, Haugen called for regulation of Facebook – a call echoed by many of the social media company’s critics. However, she added that currently it’s impossible for regulators to make meaningful change at Facebook because of the secrecy surrounding the workings of its algorithms.
With Mark Zuckerberg owning over 55% of the company’s voting shares, Haugen said:
There is nobody currently holding Zuckerberg accountable but himself.
Senator Ed Markey echoed her calls as he promoted his new act to impose more controls on how social media companies collect the data of children and promote ‘toxic’ content with algorithms.
Here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content in preying on children and teens is over. Congress will be taking action. We will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy, any longer.
A statement published by Facebook’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg on 18 September claimed that the allegations in the WSJ contained “deliberate mischaracterizations” and “conferred egregiously false motives” on Facebook.
At the heart of this series is an allegation that is just plain false: that Facebook conducts research and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company. This impugns the motives and hard work of thousands of researchers, policy experts and engineers at Facebook who strive to improve the quality of our products, and to understand their wider (positive and negative) impact.
It’s a claim which could only be made by cherry-picking selective quotes from individual pieces of leaked material in a way that presents complex and nuanced issues as if there is only ever one right answer.
A different kind of scandal?
While Facebook has gone through its fair share of image problems and allegations, some experts are saying this time feels different. Former Facebook public policy director Katie Harbath told Vox:
This is the first time I can remember anything this dramatic, with an anonymous whistleblower, this many documents, and a big reveal.
This was before Haugen revealed her identity, but still marked one of the few times a Facebook employee had gone properly on the record about the company. No previous whistleblower has had as much evidence or press attention.
Former Facebook head of global elections integrity operations Yaël Eisenstat told Vox:
It is a big moment. For years, we’ve known many of these issues — via journalists and researchers — but Facebook has been able to claim that they have an ax to grind and so we shouldn’t trust what they say. This time, the documents speak for themselves.
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