What we learned from the Facebook whistleblower hearing

By Eric Johansson

A Facebook whistleblower testified in front of US lawmakers on Tuesday about how the social media giant allegedly buried research threatening its bottom line, including how it risked harming young users’ mental health.

During the hearing, Frances Haugen, a former product manager on the civic misinformation team at Facebook, argued that Facebook is profiting from extreme content, that its platforms are harming children, that Instagram halting its work with a kids version is just momentary, and that more regulation is needed to make Facebook a force for good.

The Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security hearing was the culmination of several weeks of intense criticism of the $1tn goliath, following explosive reports in The Wall Street Journal, based on leaked internal documents and research provided by Haugen.

Citing these documents, the newspaper alleged Facebook had actively suppressed internal research revealing how the company’s platforms, particularly Instagram, could endanger young users’ mental health.

The Wall Street Journal also accused Facebook of failing to take action against drug cartels, traffickers and anti-vax conspiracists as well as exempting elite users from enforcement measures normal users are subject to.

Facebook has aggressively denied the allegations in the newspaper. It has said the company’s positive research has been glossed over.

Nick Clegg, the UK’s former deputy prime minister and advertisement giant’s vice president of global affairs, has publicly accused The Wall Street Journal of deliberately mischaracterising “what we are trying to do” and that the publication “conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”

Last week, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, endured a public grilling by lawmakers on Capitol Hill who probed her about The Wall Street Journal’s allegations. Davis, who appeared remotely, spent the hearing bobbing and weaving senators’ accusations and questions, denying any wrongdoing on Facebook’s side.

She said Facebook has halted the rollout of an Instagram version for children in response to the allegations in The Wall Street Journal.

However, the Facebook whistleblower said during her hearing on Tuesday that it’s only a question of time until the company starts working on it again.

“I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram kids and I would be amazed if a year from now we don’t have this conversation again,” Haugen said at the hearing, adding that Facebook “understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users, they have to make sure that the next generation is just as engaged on Instagram as the current one.”

Facebook whistleblower takes the stand

Haugen was identified as the Facebook whistleblower who provided the documents on Sunday when she appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes programme.

“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she said during the interview. “And Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests like making more money.”

Haugen is an industry veteran, having previously held roles at Pinterest, Yelp and Google.

“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” she said.

During the interview, Haugen accused her former employer of having been unable to prevent having its platforms being used to organise the Capitol Hill Riot on 6 January.

Her lawyers have filed at least eight different lawsuit against Facebook at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

John Tye, one of Haugen’s lawyers, told 60 Minutes: “As a publicly-traded company, Facebook is required to not lie to its investors or even withhold material information. So, the SEC regularly brings enforcement actions, alleging that companies like Facebook and others are making material misstatements and omissions that affect investors adversely.”

Facebook responded to the interview with a written statement, saying that its staff actively had to balance the right of its 2.8 billion users to “express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place.”

“We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true,” Facebook said, adding that if “any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments, and society would have solved them a long time ago.”

Haugen is also scheduled to appear in front of the British parliament and her lawyers said she had spoken with European lawmakers.

Blumenthal aggressively opened the proceedings

The Tuesday hearing itself was the regular mix of grandstanding from politicians promoting their own bills and agendas, and questions aimed at making Haugen repeat the revelations of the leaked documents, but it also provided hints that Capitol Hill has had enough of Big Tech.

This was clear already when Richard Blumenthal, the chair of the subcommittee, kicked off the Tuesday hearing with his opening statement, accusing Facebook of holding back information about “the pain that they caused” in order to protect the company’s profits.

However, he said that change is coming, including bills to protect children’s privacy and to fight illegal and harmful content on social media platforms.

“Facebook is facing a Big Tobacco moment,” Blumenthal said, adding that Mark Zuckerberg should look himself in the mirror.

“And yet, rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing,” Blumenthal said, referencing videos the Facebook CEO has shared of himself fencing and sailing. “His new modus operandi, no apologies, no admission, no action. Nothing to see here.”

In March, the Senate grilled Zuckerberg and the CEOs of Twitter and Google about their platforms’ role in the lead-up to the Capitol Hill riots.

Blumenthal has a long history of questioning Silicon Valley giants and is one of the co-sponsors behind a bipartisan bill aimed at reeling in Google and Apple’s app store dominance. The bill would prohibit the web giants compelling app developers from using their own payment solutions.

He also said that parents had contacted him with “heartbreaking stories” about bullying, suicides and eating disorder and that social media platforms must be held accountable.

Blackburn followed up with scathing remarks

Republican senator Marsha Blackburn was up next. She is one of two co-sponsors to Blumenthal’s Open App Markets Act, the second being Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

She reiterated that it was Facebook’s own research that The Wall Street Journal had reported on and dispelled Menlo Park’s claims that the newspaper had gotten it wrong, “as if The Wall Street Journal did not know how to read these documents.”

“They knew where the violations were and they knew that they are guilty,” she said. “Their research tells them this.”

Referencing the reports, she also said: “It is clear that Facebook prioritises profit over the well-being of children’s and all users.”

Senator Roger Wicker also shared a statement, basically reiterating several of the same notes made by the previous speakers.

“[The reports] show how urgent it is for Congress to act against powerful tech companies, on behalf of children, and the broader public,” Wicker said.

Haugen’s opening remarks

Then it was time for Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower herself, to take the stand. Her opening remarks noted that while Facebook has a lot of potential to do good, she alleged it amplified divisions, harmed young users and “chose to mislead and misdirect” serious questions about its impact on society instead of being transparent.

“I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” Haugen said. “But 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. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Referencing the big outage on Monday 4 October, she continued: “Yesterday we saw Facebook get taken off the internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides destabilise democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.

“It also meant 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.”

Facebook has blamed the outage on faulty “configuration changes”.

The Facebook whistleblower argued that her former employer may claim that problems with division, hate speech and suffering of children and teenagers were “just part of the deal” if people want to enjoy its services, but that the reality is different.

“They want you to believe in false choices,” she said. “They want you to believe that you must choose between a Facebook full of divisive and extreme content or losing one of the most important values.”

Haugen implored the lawmakers Capitol Hill to do more to rope in the power of Big Tech, echoing Blumenthal’s sentiment that Facebook’s Big Tobacco moment has come. During the hearing, several lawmakers would repeat or back the sentiment.

Giving testimony

Following the opening statements,  the lawmakers began to ask their questions. Blumenthal and Blackburn’s lines of questioning pretty much had Haugen reiterate the research already revealed in The Wall Street Journal’s reporting.

Klobuchar agreed with Haugen that privacy legislation is not enough to curb the impact of Facebook, especially because Silicon Valley’s deep pockets are putting obstacles in the way.

“We have not done anything to update our privacy laws in this country our federal privacy laws, nothing, zilch, in any major way,” she said. “Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry.

“We have done nothing when it comes to making the algorithms more transparent, allowing for the university research that you refer to. Why? Because Facebook and the other tech companies are throwing a bunch of money around this town, and people are listening to them.”

Answering a question on algorithms from Republican senator John Thune, Haugen said that it was simply not true that Facebook couldn’t do anything to fix the problem with problematic content, but that it chose not to do so because it would mean people wouldn’t be as willing to create new content.

She added that engagement-based ranking wasn’t the only way to rank content, but that it meant that it caused “teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content, it is pulling families apart and, in places like Ethiopia, it is literally fanning ethnic violence.”

Haugen also said that Facebook’s artificial intelligence wasn’t good enough to “adequately identify dangerous content.” Previous research from outside Facebook has pretty much said the same.

Additionally, Haugen shot back against the idea that Instagram would be a force for good for children and that it would somehow boost their mental health and provide companionship.

She said: “When Facebook has made statements in the past about how much benefit Instagram is providing to kids – [like] mental health [and that] kids are connecting who were once alone – what I’m so surprised about that is [that] if Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we’ve seen as the opposite right we’ve seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers.”

She also advocated for raising the age limit for these platforms to 16 or 18.

Facebook replies to whistleblower’s testamony

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone commented on Twitter after Haugen started to give her testimony, saying: “Just pointing out that Frances Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook.”

Senator Blackburn noted the tweet during the hearing and invited Stone to come to Capitol Hill himself.

“I will simply say this to Mr Stone: if Facebook wants to discuss their targeting of children, if they want to discuss their practices, privacy invasion or violations of the Children Online Privacy Act, I am extending to you an invitation to step forward, be sworn in and testify before this committee,” she said. “We would be pleased to hear from you and welcome your testimony.”

When other Twitter users noted the call for Stone to come and testify, he replied: “Facebook executives have testified 30 times in the last four years, including Facebook’s head of safety, Antigone Davis, in front of senator Blackburn subcommittee just last week.”

The Facebook whistleblower claimed the company’s algorithms also pushed politicians and publishers to state and publish increasingly extreme content because that’s the content that’s picked up by the company’s algorithm and therefore shared.

“That’s a huge, huge negative impact,” Haugen said, adding that Facebook has “admitted in public that engagement based ranking is dangerous without integrity and security systems.”

Haugen said she wanted more transparency about the company in the public realm.

“I believe you cannot have a system that has as big an impact on society as Facebook does today, with as little transparency is it does,” she said.

Over the past few years, the question has been repeatedly been raised on whether or not Big Tech companies should be broken up to ensure they don’t have too much power. However, Haugen rejected the idea.

“I’m actually against the breaking up of Facebook because even looking inside of just Facebook itself, not even Facebook and Instagram, you see the problems of engagement based ranking repeat themselves,” she said. “So the problems here are about the design of algorithms of AI, and the idea that AI is not intelligent.”

The whistleblower added that Facebook is the de facto internet for many people in Africa and that the problem won’t disappear just because the company is broken up.

“If you split Facebook and Instagram apart, it’s likely that most advertising dollars will go to Instagram, and Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is endangering lives around the world, only now there won’t be money to fund it,” Haugen said.

“So I think oversight and regulatory oversight and finding collaborative solutions with Congress is going to be key, because these systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up.”

Haugen ended her testimony by encouraging other would-be whistleblower to step forward.

Facebook did not return requests to comment on this story.