An ex-Facebook data scientist shocked lawmakers and the general public by revealing that the company knew about the possible harm some teens could sustain from Instagram. She also accused the company of being dishonest in its fight against hate speech and misinformation. She is now appearing before Congress.
Frances Haugen has issued a broad condemnation of Facebook. This is backed up by tens of thousand of pages of internal research documents that she secretly copied prior to leaving her position in Facebook’s civic integrity division. Haugen has also filed complaints with federal authorities alleging Facebook’s own research shows it promotes hate, misinformation, and political unrest. However, the company conceals what it knows.
Recent reports in The Wall Street Journal that were based on documents Haugen leaked to The Journal raised an outcry. Haugen was revealed in a CBS interview airing Sunday night. “Facebook has repeatedly shown that it prefers safety to profit,” she said.
A 37-year old data expert from Iowa, with a Harvard business master’s degree and a degree as computer engineer, is the ex-employee who now challenges the social media giant with nearly $1 trillion in market capital and 2.8 billion users around the world. Before being hired by Facebook in 2019, she worked at several companies, including Google and Pinterest for 15 years.
Haugen will testify before the Senate Commerce subcommittee regarding consumer protection on Tuesday.
While the panel is looking into Facebook’s use information from its own Instagram researchers that could be causing harm to some of its young users, particularly girls, it has publicly downplayed any negative effects. The peer pressure that was generated by Instagram’s visual-focused platform led to problems with mental health, body image, and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders for some teens, according to research by Haugen.
According to an internal study, 13.5% of teenage girls said that Instagram makes suicide thoughts worse and 17% said it makes eating disorders worse.
Haugen stated in a televised interview that “What’s really tragic is Facebook’s own study says, as these young ladies begin to consume this content for eating disorders, they become more and more depressed.” It actually encourages them to use the app more. They end up feeling more hateful about their bodies, which is a feedback loop.
Facebook has put an end to work on a children’s version of Instagram as a result of the Instagram research scandal. The company claims that it is intended primarily for teens aged 10-12.
Senators want to hear from Haugen.
“I look forward asking her follow up questions about why Facebook hasn’t taken action to fix issues on its platforms, even though its own internal research reveals massive problems,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, D.Minn., told The Associated Press Monday. “I want to talk about how Facebook’s algorithms encourage harmful and divisive material, and how Facebook really benefits off of our children.”
The algorithms that control what content appears in users’ news feeds and their preference for hateful content are at issue. Haugen claimed that a 2018 update to the content flow caused more division and ill will within a network that was supposed to bring people closer together. Facebook discovered that new algorithms helped to keep people coming back, despite the animosity they were generating. This pattern helped it sell more digital ads that generate the majority of its revenue.
Haugen’s critiques go beyond Instagram. In an interview, she stated that Facebook had prematurely disabled safeguards to prevent misinformation and incitement of violence after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last January. This was a claim that led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Facebook disbanded the civic integrity organization where Haugen was working after the November election. She said that this was when she realized she didn’t trust Facebook’s willingness to invest the necessary funds to prevent Facebook from becoming dangerous.
Haugen claims that she told Facebook executives that she wanted to work in the area that combats misinformation when she was hired. She had lost a friend to conspiracy theories online.
Senators from the Commerce panel hurled a torrent of criticism at Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head for global safety, during a hearing on Thursday. They accused Facebook of hiding negative Instagram findings and demanded that the company make improvements.
Davis defended Instagram’s efforts to protect young users of its platform. She also disputed how The Wall Street Journal described the results of the research.
Facebook claims that Haugen’s accusations are false and that there is no evidence supporting the claim that it is the main cause of social polarization.
“Even with all the sophisticated technology that I believe we use, and even with the tens or thousands of people that are employed to try to maintain safety and integrity, our platform is not going to be completely on top of it 100% of the times,” Nick Clegg (Facebook’s vice president for policy and public affairs), said Sunday on CNN’s”Reliable Sources.”
Clegg explained that this is because of Facebook’s “instantaneous, spontaneous form of communication”. He also said, “I think it’s because we do more than any reasonable individual can expect to.”
Haugen said that she is stepping forward in the hope that it will encourage the government to set regulations for Facebook’s activities. Facebook, like other tech giants Google and Amazon, has enjoyed little regulation in Washington for many years.
A massive global outage that engulfed Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp on Monday caused chaos. It was only slowly overturned by Monday Eastern Time. WhatsApp worked for some users but then stopped working. Others found that Instagram worked but not Facebook.
Facebook did not provide any information about the cause of the outage that began at 11:40 AM EDT. It was still not fixed six hours later.