Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, has led to what may be the most threatening scandal in the company’s history. This is forcing Facebook to face an historic crisis of much magnitude.
The pressure was turned up on Tuesday, when Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee. She provided a clear and detailed glimpse inside the notoriously secretive tech giant. She said Facebook harms children, sows division and undermines democracy in pursuit of breakneck growth and “astronomical profits.”
The former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower detailed to the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security her vast knowledge of the internal workings of the company through both her previous work and the thousands of pages of internal documents she reviewed and shared with lawmakers. And she explained the technical workings of Facebook’s platforms in a polished and uncomplicated way, citing real-world examples of the harms they can cause.
Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy” and put profit over moral responsibility, she told lawmakers. Although Haugen was highly critical of Facebook, she was constructive and even hopeful.
“These problems are solvable. A safer, free speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible,” Haugen said. “Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own. … Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is causing.”
Haugen worked at Facebook for nearly two years after stints at Google, Yelp and Pinterest. At Facebook, she studied how the social network’s algorithm amplified misinformation and was exploited by foreign adversaries.
Haugen told Congress that Facebook consistently chose to maximize its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms, just as it hid from the public and government officials internal research that illuminated the harms of Facebook products.
Before Haugen left the social network, she copied thousands of pages of confidential documents and shared them with lawmakers, regulators and The Wall Street Journal, which published a series of reports called the Facebook Files.
“During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook,” Haugen told Congress. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world.”
Haugen is not the first ex-Facebook employee who has raised concerns about the world’s largest social network. But two things distinguish her: She is a compelling witness, speaking with conviction, specificity and depth. And she came armed with receipts to buttress her account — the thousands of pages of company documents that lay bare exactly what Facebook knew about its products.
Unlike some Facebook executives who have testified before Congress, Haugen didn’t appear to withhold information in hopes of protecting the company’s reputation. And unlike Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica data analyst who blew the whistle on Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, Haugen was able to draw on experience working within Facebook. Moreover, while Haugen was working to fix Facebook’s issues as a member of its civic integrity team, Wylie had been directly involved in the problematic work Cambridge Analytica did using Facebook’s data.
In explaining and criticizing how Facebook’s platforms work, Haugen brought to bear her extensive background working in tech. After studying electrical and computer engineering, followed by an MBA at Harvard, Haugen worked at multiple tech firms before Facebook, including Google, Pinterest, Yelp, and the dating app Hinge. She specializes in “algorithmic product management” and has worked on several ranking algorithms similar to the one Facebook uses to organize its main newsfeed, she said in her testimony.
Haugen made specific recommendations for how Facebook might alter its platforms — or how regulators might create laws to force itto do so — including moving away from algorithms that rank content based on engagement and popularity-based measures such aslikes and comments from Instagram.
Of particular concern to lawmakers on Tuesday was the impact on children by Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Haugen has leaked one Facebook study that found that 13.5% of U.K. teen girls in one survey say their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after starting on Instagram.
Another leaked study found 17% of teen girls say their eating disorders got worse after using Instagram.
About 32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse, Facebook’s researchers found, which was first reported by the Journal.
After hearing all of Haugen’s testimony, Democrats and Republicans surprisingly united on regulating Facebook. In sharing many similar views several Democrats and Republicans have been speaking out on the trial.
At one moment in the hearing, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas turned to Blumenthal and said they should put aside their partisan differences to tackle a common goal: reining in Facebook.
On such regulation, Blumenthal said: “Our differences are very minor.”
“I share that view,” Moran replied.
Later, during a press conference, Blumenthal referenced the bipartisan unity at the hearing.
“If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t know if it was a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. “Every part of the country has the harms that are inflicted by Facebook and Instagram.”
But what might lawmakers do about those harms?
Haugen urged lawmakers to examine the algorithms that drive popular features, like the main feeds in Facebook and Instagram.
The algorithms reward engagement. In other words, when a post receives comments, “likes” and other interactions, it is spread more widely and is featured more prominently in feeds, instead of just featuring posts in chronological order. The engagement-based formula helps sensational content, such as posts that feature rage, hate or misinformation, travel far and wide, she said.
“It is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content. It is pulling families apart. And in places like Ethiopia, it’s literally fanning ethnic violence,” Haugen told lawmakers. She added that reforms should make “the platforms themselves safer, less twitchy, less reactive, less viral.”
Haugen suggested that Congress give Facebook the chance to “declare moral bankruptcy and we can figure out how to fix these things together.” Asked to clarify what she meant by “moral bankruptcy,” Haugen said she envisioned a process like financial bankruptcy where there is a “mechanism” to “forgive them” and “move forward.”
“Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop that they cannot get out of. …They need to admit that they did something wrong and that they need help to solve these problems. And that’s what moral bankruptcy is,” she said.
This likely won’t be Haugen’s last time testifying before Congress. During the hearing, she said her time working on counterespionage issues at Facebook gave her “strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today.”
Blumenthal suggested that these national security concerns could be the subject of a future subcommittee hearing.