Frances Haugen the whistleblower who accused Facebook of prioritizing its profits over its users told Congress that the social media company’s products are detrimental to the mental health of its young users and that they fuel divisions and weaken democracy.
During a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, Haugen said transparency regarding Facebook’s methods to entice its users to continue scrolling while creating plenty of opportunities for advertisers to reach them is needed.
She said,“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable.”
Haugen worked as a product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team before leaving the nearly $1 trillion company along with tens of thousands of confidential documents.
She said, “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.”
The company has been under fire in the past weeks as people demand the tech giant to disclose its policies for young users. Haugen gave this testimony following the global outage of Facebook and two of its main services, Instagram and WhatsApp.
She disclosed her identity during an interview with CBS on October 3 while revealing that she provided the documents that have been used in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigation as well as a Senate hearing regarding Instagram’s alleged harm.
The WSJ stories exposed that Facebook has actively contributed to escalating polarization online through its decision to change its content algorithm. The stories further show how the company failed to take action to reduce vaccine hesitancy and that it was fully aware of the harmful effects of Instagram on the mental health of teenage girls.
Mark Zuckerberg came to his company’s defense just a few hours after Haugen’s testimony. Zuckerberg posted on Facebook and said that the accusations against the company were not in line with its goals. He wrote, “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed.”
A Facebook spokesperson, Kevin McAlister, said in an email to media writing that the social media giant values the protection of its user community above profit-making. He stressed that accusations of leaked internal research proving Instagram to be toxic for teenage girls were inaccurate.
Earlier last week in his testimony in a Senate hearing Facebook’s head of global security, Antigone Davis, said, “We care deeply about the safety and security of the people on our platform. We take the issue very seriously … We have put in place multiple protections to create safe and age-appropriate experiences for people between the ages of 13 and 17.”
Moment of truth
Despite having deep political divisions both Republican and Democratic lawmakers came to a mutual agreement regarding the need for big changes.
Democratic Senator chairing the subcommittee hearing Richard Blumenthal said that the company was aware of the addictive nature of its products and that they were addictive like cigarettes.
“Tech now faces that Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth,” Blumenthal said.
He called for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company and for Zuckerberg to appear before the committee.
Blumenthal continued, “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.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn, the top Republican on the subcommittee, agreed and said, “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the wellbeing of children and all users.”
CEO of the Digital Content Next trade organization Jason Kint, describing Tuesday’s hearing as an important event said “What’s different about this moment is we have evidence coming from inside the building. What this hearing provides is that evidence that they knew and that there was actual empirical data supporting all of these downstream harms of the way the platform works.”