Frances Haugen, who previously worked for Google and Pinterest, came forward as the Facebook whistleblower and testified at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 5, just two days after revealing her identity on 60 Minutes, and one day after the worldwide outage of Facebook and its apps. The former employee turned over tens of thousands of copied internal research documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and The Wall Street Journal, which she claimed proves the company – while promoting hate, violence, and misinformation – has been lying to the public and investors.
Haugen worked as a product manager for Facebook’s civic misinformation team for nearly two years before she quit in May. During the hearing, she warned the Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security Subcommittee that:
“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 have a hundred percent control over their algorithms, and Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety.”
What About the Children?
The biggest concern was how Instagram affected children, especially when it comes to mental health. Posts made on the site turn into an online popularity contest that can be destructive to young people. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), who co-authored the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established the “E-rate” for schools and libraries as well as the V-Chip for parental control of television violence, suggested a similar law should be put into place for social media sites. “Big Tech now faces that Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
According to Haugen, engagement-based rankings such as likes and comments are exposing teens to anorexia and other undesirable content:
“Facebook knows that content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, a comment, or re-share. Those clicks and comments and re-shares aren’t necessarily for your benefit, but because they know other people will produce more content if they get the likes and comments and re-shares. They prioritize content in your feed so that you will give little hits of dopamine to your friends so they will produce more content.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said lawmakers need to see whether Facebook has violated federal laws that protect children’s privacy. “They knew what they were doing,” she opined. “They knew what their violations were. And they know they were guilty, they know this. Their research tells them this.” She then accused the company of “running scared” since teens are starting to turn to other social media outlets such as TikTok.
One of the most disturbing reveals during the hearing was the need to keep and encourage new users, especially the younger crowd. Haugen explained:
“Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users. They have to make sure that that next generation is just as engaged on Instagram as the current one. And the way they’ll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self-regulation.”
One of those “habits” allegedly being capitalized on is anorexia and other eating disorders. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) shared examples of three fake ads approved by Facebook that promoted anorexia as well as drug use. As CBS News reported:
“One ad had the words ‘throw a Skittles party like no other’ against an image of pills. Another contained advice on eating less, using common slang for anorexia. The words, against an image of a young woman’s bare stomach, read: ‘AnaTip #2: When you’re craving a snack, visit pro-ana sites to feed your motivation and reach your goal.’”
The fake ad experiment was created by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), which also exposed sex-trafficking ads and pages approved and live on Facebook, to show how such material can easily be accepted. The ads were never posted since TTP was proving a point and not actually advertising, but the experiment was conducted twice with the ads being authorized in September.
Hop on the Misinformation Train
If you frequent Facebook at all, you’ve probably noticed all the disclaimers and fact checks on anything to do with the pandemic or vaccines. However, Haugen claimed the company is not equipped to deal with COVID misinformation, hate, or violent posts. “I do not believe Facebook [as it’s] currently structured has the capability to stop vaccine misinformation because they are overly reliant on artificial reliant systems,” she said.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) seemed to take issue with that and remarked: “And yet it’s a company that [has a market cap of] over a trillion dollars, one of the world’s biggest companies that we’ve ever known, and that’s what really bothers me.”
Haugen expressed again the need for congressional oversight of the company, saying:
“This inability to see into Facebook’s actual systems and confirm they work as communicated is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway.”
Facebook and Espionage?
Shocked committee members practically jerked into straight-spine positions when the whistleblower said her last job at Facebook was working on a “counterespionage team.” Without giving too much detail, she explained her duties involved trying to track how the Chinese may be using the platform to spy on Uyghurs as well as looking into Iranian spying.
Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said that information will likely provoke another congressional hearing. “I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today,” Haugen agreed. Senators from both parties concurred that they should issue subpoenas to Facebook to get the full text of the research the whistleblower had submitted, which so far Facebook has declined to provide.
In another troubling reveal, Haugen said Facebook’s own research showed the algorithms tend to target those already socially isolated, such as widows and those who have moved to new cities or states, because they are susceptible to misinformation. The “misinformation burden” is the way her former Facebook colleagues described it. “It breaks my heart …” Haugen commented, “that these rabbit holes would suck people down and make it hard to connect with others.”
During the hearing, which took several hours, Facebook tweeted a few remarks to try to discredit its former employee, posting that she had been at the company for less than two years. Haugen “had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives – and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question,” said Lena Pietsch, director of policy communications.
Haugen insisted that “Facebook has not earned a right to just have blind trust in them,” the company suffered from “moral bankruptcy,” and is “stuck in a loop it can’t get out of.”
~ Read more from Kelli Ballard.