Whistleblower Testifies Before Congress, Compounding Facebook’s Trouble

On Tuesday, Frances Haugen, the secret source who had been leaking Facebook internal files to the press, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. With her knowledge as a company insider, Haugen explained to the lawmakers the danger Facebook is breeding and gave insights into how the federal government can make social media safer.

Frances Haugen joined Facebook in 2019 as the lead product manager on the Civic Misinformation team. Prior to Facebook, Haugen had worked for Google, Pinterest, and Yelp on their ranking algorithms. She left Facebook in May due to her growing concern over the company’s troubling decision-making. Before quitting, she exfiltrated thousands of pages of internal documents, communications, and research in preparation for blowing the whistle on Facebook. 

In September, Haugen provided the files to The Wall Street Journal anonymously, who launched an investigation into Facebook’s wrongdoings using the documents as the basis. Haugen revealed her identity on Sunday, on 60 Minutes. “There were conflicts of interests between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests and making more money.” She explained the motives behind her whistleblowing in her interview with Anderson Cooper. She also shared the documents with members of Congress and several attorney generals.

France Haugen in the Senate hearing on Tuesday. From T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times.

In the Senate hearing, Haugen emphasized Facebook’s negative impacts on teenagers, highlighted through research the company conducted on its platforms. One of the researches found that one in three teenage girls surveyed said Instagram made them worry more about their body image. Other research also suggest the damage Facebook is inflicting on children’s mental health. To many people, hardly any of these are news. Haugen centered her revelation around Facebook’s inaction to make their platforms safer and their intentional effort to mislead the public. Facebook has been advertising Instagram intensively toward teenagers. Earlier this year, the company announced Instagram Kids, a version of the popular social media platform that is specifically designed for children under 13. This project is currently on hold due to pushbacks from governments and child safety advocacy groups. 

Haugen also discussed Facebook’s role in encouraging the spread of misinformation and hate speech around the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election. The core of Facebook’s recommendation algorithm, Haugen explained, is a concept called engagement-based ranking. Simply put, the more the user “likes”, comments, or reposts a certain type of content, the more likely the algorithm is to recommend this type of content to the user. Such an algorithm is more profitable to Facebook because users tend to spend more time on social media if they are engaging with the content instead of simply viewing them, but at the same time, the algorithm prioritizes controversies, conspiracies, and potentially hurtful messages because they are more likely to cause engagement. 

On many occasions, Facebook defends its algorithm by suggesting that the tendency to promote certain content is up to the algorithm and without human intervention. And by altering the algorithm, Facebook is essentially imposing censorship over the content on the platform. “I am here today to tell you that’s not true. These problems are solvable. A safer, free speech respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible.” Haugen remarks in the hearing. Twitter, a primary competitor of Facebook, implemented several restrictions over its sharing and reposting mechanism by requiring the user to open the article linked to a post before sharing it. A chronological feed that uses time instead of the predicted level of engagement to rank content could also be helpful. However, as a for-profit company, Facebook is unlikely to implement any of these changes without regulatory pressure, Haugen indicates.

On the bright side, Senators from both sides of the aisle are united around Haugen’s message. “[Mark Zuckerberg’s] time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens is over,” Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts said during the hearing, ”Congress will be taking action.” According to Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the Federal Trade Commission is looking to open investigations into Facebook regarding “a number of misleading claims” made to investors and the public. 

Share This Post

Post Comment