Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy”, a whistleblower has claimed.
Frances Haugen – who used to work as a product manager at the tech giant – has given damning evidence to US politicians in the Senate, days after leaking internal documents to the Wall Street Journal.
Her testimony also came after Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp suffered an unprecedented outage for almost six hours on Monday – leaving its 3.5 billion users struggling to access services.
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Ms Haugen warned: “Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good. Our common good.
“When we realised Big Tobacco was hiding the harms, that caused the government to take action. When we figured out cars were safer with seatbelts, the government took action.
“And when our government learned that opioids were taking lives, the government took action.”
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The whistleblower implored politicians in the hearing to take similar action against Facebook – and alleged that the company’s leadership knows how to make its platforms safer but won’t make the necessary changes “because they have put their astronomical profits before people”.
She later warned that there was nobody at the company who could hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable other than himself.
“Mark holds a very unique role in the tech industry in that he holds over 55% of all the voting shares for Facebook. There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled,” she said.
And addressing Monday’s outage, Ms Haugen added: “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.”
Explaining why she drew parallels between Facebook, Instagram and Big Tobacco, she said such platforms give young people “little dopamine hits” every time they receive a like – and many children fear being “ostracised” and disconnected from their peers if they stop using it.
Ms Haugen also said she believes Instagram is “worse” than other apps such as TikTok, Reddit and Snapchat because of how it is “about bodies and comparing lifestyles”.
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Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Facebook knew that its products were addictive like cigarettes – adding: “Tech now faces that Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth.”
Criticising Zuckerberg, he added: “Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror.”
He also assured Ms Haugen that politicians will do “anything and everything to protect and stop any retaliation against you, and any legal action that the company may bring to bear”.
And in a direct message to Zuckerberg, Senator Ed Markey said: “Your time of invading privacy, promoting toxic content and preying on children and teens is over.”
Vowing that Congress will take action against the company, he added: “You can work with us or not work with us.”
Some senators personally extended an invitation for Zuckerberg to testify in front of the committee and put forward Facebook’s side of the story, while others accused him of going sailing instead of facing his responsibilities.
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The whistleblower had revealed her identity in an interview with the 60 Minutes programme on CBS, where she claimed Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to combat misinformation that contributed to the US Capitol attack.
She said the changes made to algorithms contributed to more divisiveness, but that Facebook discovered they helped keep people coming back. This helped the tech giant sell more digital ads, which represent the lion’s share of its revenue.
The whistleblower believes that Facebook would still be profitable without using “dangerous” algorithms – and could even make more money in five or ten years’ time because it would be “less toxic”.
Ms Haugen also claimed that, at present, Facebook is unable to effectively clamp down on vaccine misinformation because it is reliant on artificial intelligence – and by its own admission, only 10% to 15% of such posts end up being identified.
And she alleged that Facebook is aware of who its most vulnerable users are – including people who are recently widowed or divorced, and those who have moved to new cities and feel isolated.
Documents leaked by Ms Haugen included an internal study that suggests the peer pressure generated by Instagram led to mental health and body image problems among young girls – and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
One report suggested that 13.5% of teenage girls said Instagram made thoughts of suicide worse, and 17% said it made eating disorders worse.
During her testimony, Ms Haugen said: “Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content … It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have any self-regulation. We need to protect the kids.”
Facebook had been working on a version of Instagram for kids that was aimed at 10 to 12-year-olds, but this project has now been put on hold.
The social networking giant has responded to a series of stories published by the Wall Street Journal based on her leaked documents, including one that suggested the company knew Instagram had a negative impact on the body image of teenage girls.
The company denied that it “conducts research and then systematically and wilfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company” as it paraphrased the reports.
Nick Clegg – the former Lib Dem leader who now serves as Facebook’s vice president of policy and public affairs – told CNN on Sunday: “Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform, we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100% of the time.
“I think we do more than any reasonable person can expect to.”
Analysis: This is devastating for Facebook
By Mark Stone, US correspondent
Within minutes of it starting, it was clear immediately that this would be a devastating hearing. With each sentence spoken by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen came more damning allegations.
She is not calling for the shutdown of Facebook. Ms Haugen says she believes there is a place for a responsible social media company. She highlighted the moments we all enjoy – the sharing of family photos. Staying in touch with distant friends. But beyond that – sentence by sentence – Ms Haugen is delivering a truly horrific assessment of Facebook’s practices.
“Almost no one outside Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook,” Ms Haugen said. “The company’s leadership keeps vital information from the public,” she added. “Facebook has repeatedly misled us about what it’s own research reveals about the safety of children,” she alleged.
She described how bullying online through Facebook and Instagram follows children home. It’s often the last thing they read when they go to bed. When she was at school, she said, kids could find a safe place at home at the end of the school day. Now, the pressures and impact is in their palm and with them all the time.
The focus is the safety of children but she broadened her testimony to include the influence Facebook has on politics and hate speech and its extraordinarily pervasive influence on societies in countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia.
Ms Haugen was, until May this year, a product manager hired by Facebook to help protect against election interference on the platform. The chairman of the committee, Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal, said in his opening remarks: “The damage inflicted by Facebook will haunt a generation.”
This feels like a tipping point for the social media firm.