Facebook Whistle-Blower Urges Lawmakers to Regulate the Company


WASHINGTON — A former Facebook product supervisor who changed into a whistle-blower gave lawmakers an unvarnished look into the inside workings of the world’s largest social community on Tuesday and detailed how the firm was deliberate in its efforts to hold folks — together with youngsters — hooked to its service.

In greater than three hours of testimony earlier than a Senate subcommittee, Frances Haugen, who labored on Facebook’s civic misinformation group for practically two years till May, spoke candidly and with a degree of perception that the firm’s executives have not often supplied. She mentioned Facebook had purposely hidden disturbing analysis about how youngsters felt worse about themselves after utilizing its merchandise and the way it was prepared to use hateful content material on its website to hold customers coming again.

Ms. Haugen additionally gave lawmakers data on what different knowledge they need to ask Facebook for, which might then lead to proposals to regulate the Silicon Valley large because it more and more faces questions on its international attain and energy.

“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Ms. Haugen, 37, mentioned throughout her testimony. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes.”

After years of congressional hearings on Facebook and different giant tech corporations, Ms. Haugen’s look stood out not just for the inside look however for the method she united Republican and Democratic lawmakers round tackling the problem of the platform’s hurt to youngsters. Some senators known as her testimony a “Big Tobacco” second for the expertise trade.

The lawmakers mentioned Ms. Haugen’s testimony, and the hundreds of pages of paperwork she had gathered from the firm after which leaked, confirmed that Facebook’s high executives had misled the public and couldn’t be trusted.

“This research is the definition of a bombshell,” mentioned Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who led the listening to.

Ms. Haugen’s testimony to the Senate Commerce subcommittee on shopper safety capped a number of intense weeks of scrutiny for Facebook after she leaked hundreds of pages of inside paperwork to The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper’s coverage last month set off one in every of Facebook’s worst public relations crises since an information privateness scandal in 2018 with the consulting agency Cambridge Analytica.

On Sunday, Ms. Haugen’s id as the whistle-blower turned public when she arrange a private web site and appeared on “60 Minutes.”

Facebook has repeatedly pushed again on the criticism, saying its analysis was taken out of context and misunderstood.

Late Tuesday night, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief govt, addressed the whistle-blower’s leaks for the first time. He rebutted claims that Facebook prioritized engagement to pad its backside line, together with engagement of dangerous content material. He mentioned that information protection had been deceptive about the firm’s motives and that the firm’s analysis had been taken out of context. He mentioned it was “deeply illogical” that Facebook would prioritize dangerous content material as a result of advertisers don’t need to purchase advertisements on a platform that amplifies hate and misinformation.

“Most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a notice to staff, which he later posted on his Facebook account.

Lawmakers have been in broad settlement throughout the listening to about the want to maintain Facebook to account. They raised quite a lot of legislative proposals, together with payments that may power corporations like Facebook to present extra transparency on the unfold of misinformation and different dangerous content material.

“The tech gods have been demystified,” mentioned Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican of Mississippi. “The children of America are hooked on their product. There is cynical knowledge on behalf of these big tech companies that this is true.”

But the senators didn’t present a transparent path for addressing the many issues raised by Ms. Haugen. Dozens of payments on knowledge privateness and modifications to speech legal guidelines have stalled in Congress. House lawmakers accredited a sequence of payments meant to strengthen antitrust legal guidelines this yr, however the full House has not taken up the laws, and its prospects in the Senate seem dim.

Ms. Haugen prompt laws that may power corporations like Facebook to open their techniques to researchers to examine the prevalence of hate speech and different dangerous content material.

“We can afford nothing less than full transparency,” Ms. Haugen mentioned, who added that she didn’t imagine antitrust motion to break up Facebook would tackle core issues in the enterprise mannequin. “Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good.”

Though the title for the listening to was “Protecting Kids Online,” lawmakers peppered Ms. Haugen on all kinds of points. They requested how Facebook had amplified harmful speech main to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, how misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines unfold on its companies, and the way false data contributed to ethnic violence in Ethiopia and Myanmar.

Ms. Haugen gave detailed solutions and repeatedly mentioned executives knew extra about the issues than they have been letting on.

She additionally provided technological experience on the expertise behind the firm’s companies. She talked about the risks in the method that Facebook provides precedence to posts based mostly on what number of likes, shares and feedback they generate — engagement that usually happens with false, divisive and agitating content material. She contrasted it with iMessage, Apple’s text-messaging platform, which ranks messages in the order wherein they arrived.

In addition to selling dangerous, hyper-engaging content material in the United States, Facebook’s engagement-based rating system is “literally fanning ethnic violence” in locations like Ethiopia, she mentioned.

Ms. Haugen additionally criticized Facebook’s deal with expertise instruments to detect vaccine and different misinformation. Facebook is “overly reliant on artificial intelligence systems that they themselves say will likely never get more than 10 to 20 percent of the content,” she mentioned.

Several senators excoriated Mr. Zuckerberg for making selections that eschewed security and privateness. He accredited of selling posts that generated the most engagement.

“So here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content and preying on children and teens is over,” mentioned Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Mr. Blumenthal mentioned after the listening to, “Facebook is a black box, and Mark Zuckerberg is the algorithm designer in chief.”

Ms. Haugen studied electrical and pc engineering at Olin College and bought a grasp of enterprise administration diploma from Harvard. She then labored at Silicon Valley corporations together with Google, Pinterest and Yelp. She left Facebook after practically two years engaged on the civic misinformation group, which handled points associated to democracy and misinformation, and in a while countering efforts by international governments to abuse the platform.

At Facebook, Ms. Haugen mentioned, she seen a sample of the firm’s selecting to ignore warnings of hurt executed by its service. The closing straw got here in December when the firm disbanded her group that was charged with stopping the unfold of misinformation.

“It really felt like a betrayal,” Ms. Haugen mentioned.

In addition to sharing the paperwork with lawmakers and The Journal, she despatched some to the workplaces of no less than 5 state attorneys normal and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Lawyers at Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit regulation group that represents Ms. Haugen, have pressed the S.E.C. to open an investigation that Facebook withheld proof that may have an effect on its monetary efficiency.

Mr. Blumenthal mentioned after the listening to that he would ask the Federal Trade Commission and the S.E.C. to open investigations into Facebook for “a number of misleading claims” which have been made to customers, the public and buyers. He added that Mr. Zuckerberg ought to seem earlier than Congress.

“If he is in any way in disagreement with anything that has been said here, he’s the one that ought to come forward, he’s the one that’s in charge,” Mr. Blumenthal mentioned.

Reporting was contributed by Mike Isaac, Sheera Frenkel, Ryan Mac and Kevin Roose.



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