Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed her identity on Sunday as the whistleblower who handed thousands of internal Facebook documents to Congress.
She is set to testify in front of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Her testimony comes a day after Facebook suffered a global outage—affecting the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people who rely on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.
Haugen’s documents reveal the company’s public statements, about how its products harmed its users and democracy, did not match up to what its own researchers had found behind the scenes.
The whistleblower downloaded thousands of research documents from Facebook’s internal employee forum before leaving the company in May of this year. The documents reveal research showing a substantial percentage of teenage girls saying that using Instagram made their body-image issues worse. Other documents described how a change to Facebook’s algorithms in 2018 turbocharged the spread of divisive content, and how the company was doing little to prevent human traffickers from using its platforms to make money.
In an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Haugen said the company’s associated failings were linked together by one deep, central flaw. “No one at Facebook is malevolent, but the incentives are misaligned,” she said. “Facebook makes more money when you consume more content. People enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction. And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact and the more they consume.”
“Facebook over and over again has shown it chooses profit over safety,” Haugen said on the program. “It is paying for its profits with our safety.”
The problems revealed by the documents don’t lend themselves to easy solutions, but several former Facebook employees and some of the company’s leading external critics have ideas on what can be done.
Samidh Chakrabarti: Make Facebook’s research and decision documents public
Samidh Chakrabarti is the former leader of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, on which Haugen, the whistleblower, had worked during her stint at the company. Chakrabarti left Facebook in August, months after the team was disbanded.
Chakrabarti has said on Twitter that Facebook employs some of the most advanced specialists in the world to research the impact of its products on users, democracy, and vulnerable groups. But their work is often ignored, he said.
Often, the reason for this is that the company’s incentives (to increase the time users spend engaging on the platform, which drives profit) would be hurt if the fixes proposed by researchers were put into practice.
“The company has deep knowledge of its platforms’ challenges and is insufficiently addressing them,” Chakrabarti tweeted. “Even current employees working on these issues are in a state of despair around the inaction.”
The best way to fix this structural problem within Facebook, Chakrabarti suggested on Twitter, is by giving the researchers more power to stand up to executives, and by forcing the platforms to make their research and decision-making documents public “on all matters of societal import.”
That would likely give the public a better idea of how using Facebook affects their lives, and would incentivize the company’s leaders to take decisions with their users — rather than their profits — at front of mind.
Yael Eisenstat: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg must resign
Yael Eisenstat joined Facebook as the company’s global head of election integrity operations for political advertising in 2018. She left the company after a project she worked on, to build a tool to scan political ads for misinformation and subject them to fact-checks, was rejected by senior leaders.
In order to begin fixing the problems with Facebook, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg and its Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg must resign, Eisenstat says.
“It’s time for new leadership,” Eisenstat said in an interview. “Not just a new leadership, but a whole new board and a new leadership that is accountable to the public.”
Zuckerberg controls some 58% of voting shares on Facebook’s board, giving him the ability to veto any proposal put to it, essentially ensuring that he has sole discretion over the direction of the company.
“He’s a king, he’s not a CEO,” Eisenstat says. “He can’t be fired. Normally in a publicly-traded company, the board can fire the CEO, or shareholders can pressure the CEO to leave. But at Facebook, there’s no pressure mechanism.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal: Stronger oversight to protect children and teens
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal is the chair of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, in front of whom Haugen will testify on Tuesday.
He says that Facebook should stop “covering up what it knows” about the impact of Instagram on children and teens, and that the company must be subject to stricter government oversight.
“We need stronger oversight to protect children from Facebook’s algorithms,” Blumenthal told TIME. “Facebook is amplifying and weaponizing teens’ insecurities and anxieties, especially online bullying, eating disorders, self-injury, even suicide. Right now they are profiting by pushing destructive, devastatingly harmful content to children who are worried about their self-image. Facebook has to stop covering up what it knows and must change its practices, but there has to be government accountability because Facebook can no longer be trusted.”
Blumenthal said he planned to ask Haugen, the whistleblower, what she thinks should be done to protect children and the public during his questioning on Tuesday. “I’ll be asking her what she thinks should be changed about the algorithms,” Blumenthal says. “She’s an expert in this area.”
The “Real Facebook Oversight Board”: The SEC must investigate Facebook for wrongdoing
A panel of experts and critics of Facebook that calls itself the “Real Facebook Oversight Board” has called on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate Facebook under rules against companies misleading their shareholders.
The board was set up in 2020 as a counterweight to the Facebook Oversight Board, a quasi-independent judicial body set up by Facebook to adjudicate controversial decisions by the company to take up or leave down content.
“Frances Haugen’s allegations are credible and extremely serious, alleging that Facebook lied to regulators, shareholders and the public,” a spokesperson for the board said in a statement to TIME.
“In terms of penalties, everyone – including Facebook – deserves due process. But their behavior to date suggests violations of the public trust and the need for settlements and fines on par with the tobacco industry. And Frances Haugen’s allegations suggest that Facebook’s behavior may be not just immoral but also criminal, which the SEC should investigate to the fullest.”
Sen. Mark Warner: Reform Section 230
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner is one of Facebook’s longest-standing critics in Congress. He has met several times with Zuckerberg, Sandberg and other executives.
“I feel like I’ve been promised that there’s going to be corrective action, and it feels at best like that corrective action has been half-hearted,” he told TIME on Monday. “Is this malicious intent, or has the beast grown so big that even the leadership is unable to control it? I don’t think we can rely upon the goodwill of the Facebook leadership to correct this problem on its own. There needs to be governmental and societal action.”
Warner’s SAFE-TECH Act, drafted along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mazie Hirono, is currently being scrutinized by lawmakers.
It proposes reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives tech platforms legal immunity from being held accountable for the content users post on them — even if that content breaks other laws.
“Section 230 reform would protect First Amendment rights while putting legal and ultimately monetary consequences to the continued irresponsibility of Facebook,” he says. “You’ve got a right in this country to say stupid stuff. But does that right extend to having it amplified five billion times? We are taking existing laws, whether it’s bullying and harassment or false advertising, and saying: just because that behavior now takes place on a social media platform, that should not give them [Facebook] immunity.”
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