- Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress Tuesday.
- The hearing comes after she leaked internal documents showing the company’s controversial practices.
- She testified that Facebook prioritized profits over stopping extremism and division.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate committee on Tuesday after leaking internal documents shedding new light on many of the social media giant’s controversial business practices.
Haugen shared the documents with the Wall Street Journal that in part showed Facebook knew Instagram negatively impacted the mental health of its young users, especially teenage girls. It also showed employees were worried that a 2018 algorithm change further promoted sensationalistic and divisive content to users.
She stressed the need for a regulatory body within the federal government to oversee Facebook and other platforms but also said she is against breaking the company up. Senators have called her an “American hero” and a “catalyst” for change.
Facebook consistently resolves conflicts “in favor of its own profits,” Haugen said in her opening remarks. “The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, and more combat.”
Haugen referenced Monday’s sweeping Facebook outage
In her opening remarks, Haugen said she doesn’t know why the services went down. “But I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepened divides destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies,” she said.
“It also means the millions of small businesses, weren’t able to reach potential customers, and countless photos of new babies weren’t joyously celebrated by family and friends around the world,” she said.
‘The buck stops with Mark’
Haugen said CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds more than half of all voting shares for Facebook, giving him unilateral control over the company. In that sense, “the buck stops with” him when making major decisions at Facebook.
“There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself,” Haugen told Congress. She suggested a regulatory agency within the federal government to help keep Facebook and other technology platforms in check.
She also said that regulatory oversight “might actually make Facebook a more profitable company five or 10 years from now,” and the platform could be even “kinder, friendlier, and more collaborative.”
“It’s in everyone’s interest,” Haugen said Tuesday. She said she’s against breaking up the company though.
“These systems will continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up,” Haugen said.
Facebook responded in real-time
Facebook’s communications lead responded to Haugen publicly for the first time as the hearing was in progress, claiming in response to her comments about child safety for children on the platform and related research that she “did not work on child safety or Instagram.”
-Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 5, 2021
Shortly after, another spokesman disputed Haugen’s claims that Facebook removed controls it added around the election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, while claiming she did not work on such efforts.
“We left a number of the measures on through Jan 6, added additional measures following the violence at the Capitol, and made some of the changes-like not recommending political groups-permanent.”
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn referenced Stone’s tweets during the hearing and invited the company to testify itself before Congress.
Instagram Kids is expected to come out, eventually
Haugen and the Senate committee members expressed doubt that Facebook’s announcement that it was “pausing” the development of an Instagram for children under 13 years old would last long or result in a permanent scrapping of plans for such a platform.
“I’d be sincerely surprised if they don’t continue working on Instagram Kids,” Haugen said. “I’d be amazed if a year from now we’re not having this conversation again.”
“Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users and that the next generation is just as engaged as the current one,” Haugen added. “And they’ll do that by making sure they have habits before they have good self-regulation — by hooking kids.”
Haugen previously said on 60 Minutes Sunday that Facebook’s own research found that Instagram contributes to eating disorders, including anorexia, in teenage girls.
“There are going to be women walking around this planet in 60 years with brittle bones because of choices that Facebook made around emphasizing profit today,” Haugen told Congress Tuesday.
Mark Zuckerberg rejected suggested ‘soft interventions’
Haugen said in April of last year, in the runup to the U.S. presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg “was directly presented with a list of soft interventions,” so options to tamp down potentially harmful content, but chose not to because it would impact the platform’s MSI, or the rates at which content is engaged with and shared.
“Mark Zuckerberg was directly presented with a list of soft interventions and chose to not remove downstream MSI in April of 2020, even in isolated and at-risk countries, if it had any impact on the overall MSI,” Haugen said.
She said her “best theory” for this reasoning is because “people’s bonuses are based on MSI. If you hurt MSI, a bunch of people wouldn’t get their bonuses.”
Haugen said Facebook can’t stop vaccine misinformation
“I don’t believe Facebook as it’s currently structured has the ability to stop vaccine misinformation” because it relies too heavily on AI to sift through content.
Facebook’s heavy reliance on machines to police posts was a central theme in Tuesday’s hearing.
An ‘American hero’
Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, called Haugen “A 21st-century American hero.”
“We owe you a huge debt of gratitude for what you’re doing here today,” he said.
Echoing Markey, Sen. Klobuchar told Haugen: “I think the time has come for action, and I think you are the catalyst for that action.”
And Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Haugen coming forward sets an example for our nation and “that one person can really make a difference.”