Whistleblower Frances Haugen calls Facebook danger to children and democracy

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(WASHINGTON) — A Senate subcommittee on Tuesday is hearing from a whistleblower who claims Facebook manipulated content it knew was harmful to young users, a day after the social media giant experienced an apparently unrelated massive outage.

Frances Haugen, who revealed her identity during a Sunday interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, has been cooperating with a Senate Commerce subcommittee as part of its ongoing efforts to assess potential regulations for the platform. Haugen is expected to tell lawmakers on Tuesday about evidence she reportedly has showing that the company intentionally ignored proof of its potentially harmful impact on users.

“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money,” she told 60 Minutes.

Facebook has publicly refuted Haugen’s claims.

Here are the latest developments. All times Eastern:

Oct 05, 5:10 pm
Key takeaways from Senate testimony

Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, hailed by bipartisan lawmakers, alleged on Tuesday blatant disregard from Facebook executives when they learned their platforms could have harmful effects on foreign democracies and the mental health of children.

“Facebook has not earned our blind faith,” Haugen said in her opening statement before lawmakers. “There is a pattern of behavior that I saw [at] Facebook: Facebook choosing to prioritize its profits over people.”

“You can declare moral bankruptcy, and we can figure out a fix [to] these things together, because we solve problems together,” she said later on.

Although senators from both parties appeared to support her calls to regulate Facebook, how and when that might happen was unclear.

Minutes after her testimony, Facebook issued a statement attempting to discredit Haugen, stating that she worked for the company “for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.”

Click here for some key takeaways from Tuesday’s hearing.

-ABC News’ Victor Ordoñez

Oct 05, 2:08 pm
Facebook responds to hearing in statement

Facebook director of policy communications Lena Pietsch released a statement following whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony, attempting to discredit her knowledge of the company.

“Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives – and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question. We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” Pietsch wrote.

“Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act,” the statement finished.

Multiple times during the hearing, lawmakers invited Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and communications spokespersons to appear before Congress and testify themselves.

Zuckerberg has remained silent on Haugen’s allegations for days, and multiple senators mocked the billionaire over recent social media posts of him out sailing instead.

-ABC News’ Zunaira Zaki

Oct 05, 2:00 pm
Hearing adjourns with plea for more whistleblowers to speak out

After more than three hours of testimony, the Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has accused the company of deceiving users and investors and putting “profits before people,” has adjourned.

While lawmakers battle it out over President Joe Biden’s agenda, they united on Tuesday to blast Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s silence on Haugen accusations, which raise alarms about the mental health of children and real-world dangers of hate speech she said Facebook knows it perpetuates but ignores. Lawmakers said she has provided hundreds of pages of documents of internal data to back her claims.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the subcommittee chair, closed by reading a text he said he received from a constituent who said he was in tears watching the hearing because, he said, he’s seen first-hand how Instagram has changed his teenage daughter.

“‘My 15-year-old daughter loved her body at 14. Was on Instagram constantly and maybe posting too much. Suddenly she started hating her body. Her body dysmorphia, now anorexia, and was in deep deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear she’ll never be the same,'” Blumenthal said, quoting the father.

Haugen said “because of the nature of engagement-based ranking and amplification of interests,” Facebook and Instagram users are “pushed towards extreme dieting and pro-anorexia content very rapidly” — but that the algorithm perpetuating that could be changed.

After raising new allegations concerning Zuckerberg’s actions, national security concerns, and employee bonuses tied to a system shown to fuel misinformation, Haugen closed with a call to Congress to address Facebook’s growth and provide oversight as it’s historically done for other industries, like tobacco, in the past.

Saying that modern technological systems “walled off,” Haugen also called on more whistleblowers with direct knowledge of wrongdoings in big tech to step forward.

“The fact we’re being asked these false choices — it’s just an illustration of what happens when the real solutions are hidden inside of companies,” she said. “We need more tech employees to come forward through legitimate channels, like the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) or Congress, to make sure that the public has the information they need in order to have technologies be human-centric, not computer central.”

Oct 05, 1:39 pm
Blackburn blasts Facebook spokesperson, challenges him to testify

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Senate subcommittee hearing testimony from the Facebook whistleblower on Tuesday, responded directly to a Facebook spokesperson after a compelling first round of testimony from Frances Haugen.

Andy Stone had tweeted earlier and pointed out that Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram research issues. Haugen, who worked as a project data manager was assigned to Facebook’s civic integrity group.

Blackburn blasted Stone to come before Congress himself.

“I will simply say this to Mr. Stone: If Facebook wants to discuss their targeting of children — if they want to discuss their practices, privacy invasion or violations of the Children Online Privacy Act, I am extending to you an invitation to step forward, be sworn in and testify before this committee. We would be pleased to hear from you and welcome your testimony,” she said.

Oct 05, 1:36 pm
Whistleblower blasts Facebooks for lack of transparency when ‘lives are on the line’

Whistleblower Frances Haugen reiterated to the Senate panel that Facebook’s own data raises the concerns she’s presenting to them and that the platform has unprecedented access into people’s lives worldwide.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to keep secrets when people’s lives are on the line,” she said. “To be clear, if they make $40 billion a year, they have the resources to solve these problems. They’re choosing not to solve them.”

She also told lawmakers she thinks there should be greater consideration to age when it comes to using any social media after her 15 years in big tech, keeping the focus of her message on its harmful effects on kids.

“I strongly encourage raising age limits to 16 or 18 years old, based on looking at the data around, problematic use or addiction on the platform and Children’s self-regulation issues,” she said.

She shared particular concern with Instagram, saying internal research shows the platform is “distinctly worse” than other social media platforms because, she said, “it’s about bodies and about comparing lifestyles.”

Oct 05, 12:50 pm
Lawmakers raise having 2nd hearing on Haugen’s national security concerns

After whistleblower Frances Haugen raised concerns around Facebook’s resourcing of counterterrorism and teams intended to counter foreign influence, lawmakers opened the door to holding another hearing.

“I believe Facebook’s consistent understaffing of the counterespionage, information operations and counterterrorism teams is a national security issue, and I’m speaking to other parts of Congress about that,” Haugen said.

Sen. Dan, Sullivan, R-Alaska, followed up, “So you’re saying in essence that the platform, whether Facebook knows it or not, is being utilized by some of our adversaries in a way that helps push and promote their interests at the expense of America’s?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Facebook is very aware that this is happening on the platform, and I believe the fact that Congress doesn’t get a report of exactly how many people are working on these things internally is unacceptable because you have a right to keep the American people safe.”

“I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today,” she added.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., then raised the possibility of holding a second hearing with Haugen on the issue and went on to thank her for her bravery and called for other whistleblowers to come forward.

Oct 05, 12:37 pm
Facebook responds to whistleblower by live-tweeting hearing

Facebook said communications staffer Andy Stone would live-tweet through the Senate hearing to respond to Frances Haugen’s testimony.

“Just pointing out the fact that @FrancesHaugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook,” he tweeted. “As she herself just said under oath, ‘I don’t work on it.'”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., had asked if teenagers are some of Facebook’s most profitable users.

“I’m sure they are some of the more profitable users on Facebook, but I do not work directly on them,” Haugen said.

Facebook also pointed to a May op-ed in CNBC from Nick Clegg, Facebook vice president of global affairs, calling for “bipartisan approach on internet regulation.”

But lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday, in a normally divided Washington, were united in blasting the social media giant after they said internal documents Haugen presented to them showed Facebook ignored its own evidence that it harms young users and fuels hate speech. Haugen also alleged CEO Mark Zuckerberg had the opportunity to intervene but dismissed the concern.

Oct 05, 12:18 pm
Whisteblower alleges employee bonuses tied to system driving hate speech

Using Ethiopia as an example, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told lawmakers the company is “pulling families apart” and fueling “ethnic tensions” as the platform’s news feed ranking algorithm, via “meaningful social interactions” or MSIs, elevates polarizing content.

She said she has submitted documents to Congress showing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was presented with “soft intervention options” to MSIs in April 2021 and chose not to add features to intervene.

“Facebook’s own algorithms are bad at finding this content. It’s still in the raw form for 80, 90% of even that sensitive content,” she said. “In countries where they don’t have integrity systems in the language local language, and in the case of Ethiopia, there are 100 million people in Ethiopia and six languages — Facebook only supports two of those languages for integrity systems.”

“This strategy of focusing on language-specific content-specific systems AI to save us, is doomed to fail,” she added.

Asked why Facebook wouldn’t get rid of “downstream MSIs” when data showed the system expanded hate speech, misinformation and violence-inciting content, she claimed that employee bonuses are still currently tied to MSIs.

“If you hurt MSI, a bunch of people weren’t gonna get their bonuses,” she said.

Oct 05, 11:53 am
Whistleblower alleges Facebook drives profits by ‘hooking kids’

With the mental health of teens and preteens a prime focus at Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Haugen directly if Facebook hooks users to its platforms at a young age in order to make them more profitable over the long term.

“They know that children bring their parents online — so they understand the value of younger users for the long-term success of Facebook,” said Haugen.

She also said they know children will bring family members to the platform, if not the reverse.

“Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow they have to find new users. They have to make sure that the next generation is just as engaged with Instagram as the current one, and the way they’ll do that, making sure children establish habits before they have good self-regulation,” added Hagen.

“By hooking kids?” asked Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

“By hooking kids,” Haugen affirmed. “We need to protect the kids.”

-ABC News’ Zunaira Zaki, Mary Kathryn Burke and Victor Ordonez

Oct 05, 11:40 am
Instagram’s effect on kids, Facebook ‘misinformation,’ key concerns for lawmakers

Lawmakers on the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security focused on whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leaked internal documents showing the media giant found evidence of its harmful effects on young users and its fueling of misinformation but did nothing to address either, putting “profits before people.”

For the effect on kids, Haugen said it’s a problem previous generations did not have to face.

“Kids who are bullied on Instagram, the bullying follows them home. It follows them into their bedrooms. The last thing they see before they go to bed at night is someone being cruel to them. Or the first thing in the morning, someone being cruel to them,” she said.

She added the Facebook “definitely” targets kids as young as eight years old through its Messenger platform, among other tactics.

Haugen said if she had the power, she would establish more transparency with congressional oversight bodies, propose legislation on what an effective oversight agency would look and immediately re-implement the “soft interventions” identified to protect the 2020 election.

“No one censored being forced to click on a link before resharing it,” she said.

Oct 05, 11:23 am
Whistleblower alleges Facebook, Instagram lead young users to anorexia content

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., raised the alleged harmful effects of Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and the data whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked showing Facebook’s own research found that more than 13% of teenage girls said that Instagram made their thoughts of suicide worse.

“What did they do? They proposed ‘Instagram for Kids,’ now been put on pause, because of public pressure,” Klobuchar blasted, before asking Haugen if Facebook knows data has shown Instagram also promotes eating orders in young girls.

“Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content,” Haugen said.

An internal Facebook study shown to lawmakers by Haugen that Klobuchar cited said 17% of teen girls said Instagram makes eating disorders worse.

Comparing the social media giant to tobacco companies targeting youth, Haugen said that Facebook is deliberately designing their product to be addictive.

“Facebook has a long history of having a successful and very effective growth division where they take little, tiny tweaks and constantly, constantly, constantly trying to optimize is to grow,” she added.

Oct 05, 11:08 am
Whistleblower: ‘Buck stops with Mark’

Asked whether CEO Mark Zuckerberg would be the one to dictate the decisions around Facebook’s algorithm, whistleblower Frances Haugen said yes, noting his “unique” role in the company, noting he holds over 55% of all voting shares.

“There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled, and in the end, the buck stops with Mark,” Haugen said. “There’s no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”

In her opening statement, Haugen echoed Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in comparing Facebook’s reckoning to a “big tobacco moment” and called on the government to take action.

“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change. Facebook will not change,” she said.

“When we realized big tobacco is hiding the harms that it caused, the government took action. When we figured out cars were safer than seatbelts, the government took action. And when our government learned that opioids are taking lives, the government took action,” she said. “I implore you to do the same here today.”

Haugen said that Facebook “wants you to believe that the problems we’re talking about are unsolvable. They want you to believe in false choices. They want you to believe that you must choose between a Facebook full of divisive and extreme content or losing one of the most important values.”

“I’m here today to tell you that that’s not true,” she said.

Oct 05, 9:18 am
Blumenthal promises ‘riveting testimony’

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security, promised “riveting” testimony that would prove to be a “breakthrough moment” ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.

“This whistleblower is one gutsy, smart, strong woman who is speaking truth to the nation about how Facebook is dragging children into dark places and deepening their insecurities with online bullying, self-injuries, suicide, eating disorders, and I think she will tell us what it’s like to see the top Facebook executives make decisions that profit Facebook at the expense of children’s safety, how they put children’s safety above — below profit-making motive,” Blumenthal told reporters Monday evening.

Blumenthal said the documents Haugen has provided show a “searing indictment of the top corporate management of Facebook ignoring their own study, their own surveys and research that showed how they were putting kids in danger, just so they could profit more.”

He also alleged Facebook has been “utterly unresponsive” to the committee’s requests to disclose their own studies and said he hopes Haugen coming forward will encourage other whistleblowers.

Oct 05, 8:57 am
Whistleblower to testify before Senate panel

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee at 10 a.m. on Facebook and Instagram’s impacts on young users in a hearing entitled, “Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower. “

Beyond alleging Facebook’s knowledge of its platforms’ negative impact on teenagers and young girls, Haugen has reportedly come forward with documents showing the social media giant has also ignored but is aware of how hate speech and misinformation are emphasized on their sites.

Haugen, who revealed her identity during a Sunday interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” has been cooperating with the offices of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., chair and ranking member of the Senate committee that is assessing potential regulations for the social media giant.

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