A Facebook whistleblower said the company was “operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny”


Frances Haugen, a 37-year-old former Facebook product manager who has worked on civic integrity issues at the company, was confronted with questions from a trade subcommittee about what Facebook-owned Instagram knew of. its effects on young users, among other problems.

“I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, fuel division and weaken our democracy,” she said in her opening remarks. “The management of the company knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but will not make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits ahead of people. Congressional action is needed. They will not solve this crisis without your help.”

She stressed that she had come forward “at great personal risk” because she felt that “we still have time to act. But we must act now”.

Haugen’s identity as a Facebook whistleblower was revealed in “60 Minutes” on Sunday night. Previously, she had shared a series of documents with regulators and the Wall Street Journal, which published a multi-part investigation showing that Facebook was aware of issues with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the damage caused by Instagram, especially to young girls. .

“When we realized that the tobacco companies were hiding the harm they were causing, the government took action,” she said in her opening remarks. “When we realized cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action. And today the government is taking action against companies that have withheld evidence on opioids. I implore you to do the same here. “

Following the hearing, Facebook released a statement attempting to discredit Haugen. “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 report, never attended at a decision point meeting with C-level executives – and has testified more than six times not to work on the subject in question, “the statement said, tweeted by the spokesperson Andy Stone, read. “We don’t agree with her description of the many issues she has testified to. Despite all of this, we agree on one thing: it’s time to start creating standard rules for the Internet.”
Facebook is no stranger to scandals, and this isn’t the first time the company has been the subject of hearings in Congress. It’s also not the first time that Facebook’s public image has been shaken by a whistleblower. But Haugen’s documents and upcoming testimonials come as part of a deeper examination of Facebook’s power and data privacy practices, and have already sparked bipartisan criticism of the company’s influence on children. . It remains to be seen, however, whether this will create momentum for meaningful regulation.

From breakdown to indignation

The testimony came after a tumultuous day for the company. Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram went down for about six hours on Monday.

In his testimony, Haugen said: “Yesterday we saw Facebook go off the Internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I do know that for over 5 hours Facebook was not used to deepen divisions, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about themselves. their body. “

She added: “It also means that millions of small businesses have not been able to reach potential customers and countless photos of new babies have not been happily celebrated by family and friends around the world. I believe in the potential of Facebook. We can have the social media that we enjoy, that connects us, without tearing our democracy apart, endangering our children and sowing ethnic violence around the world. We can do better.

Beyond the documents, there is also the power of Haugen’s personal story. She started at Facebook in 2019 after previously working for other leading tech companies including Google (GOOG) and Pinterest (PINS). She spoke to the Wall Street Journal about losing a friendship over misinformation online and its impact on how she thinks about social media. She also told the post that her goal in speaking out was not to bring down Facebook but to “save it”.
About a month ago, Haugen reportedly filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging the company is hiding research into its shortcomings from investors and the public. She also shared the documents with regulators and the Journal, which released a multi-part investigation showing that Facebook was aware of issues with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the damage Instagram caused, especially to people. Girls.

Facebook problems ‘will haunt a generation,’ says senator

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Trade Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, expressed his “sincere gratitude” to Haugen for “standing up to one of the most powerful and relentless giants in the world. ‘history of the world’.

He added: “The damage done to self-interest and self-esteem by Facebook today will haunt a generation.”

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of security, was questioned by members of the same Senate subcommittee last week following the Journal’s report on the impact of its apps on young users. Davis, who identified herself as a mother and former teacher, rebuffed the idea that the report was a “bomb” and did not pledge to release a full research report, noting “confidentiality considerations” potential. She said Facebook “was looking for ways to post more research.”
The Journal’s report and renewed pressure from lawmakers following the hearing also seemed to force Instagram to rethink its plan to introduce a version of its service for children under 13. Days before the hearing, Instagram said it would put the project on hiatus.

“Facebook’s actions make it clear that we cannot trust the police itself,” Blumenthal said in a statement Sunday. “We need to consider tighter supervision, effective protections for children and tools for parents, among the reforms needed.”

National security concerns – and future hearings

During his testimony, Haugen said, “Congress can change the rules that Facebook follows and stop the much damage it is doing now. “

Haugen, whose last role at Facebook was as a product manager supporting the company’s counterintelligence team, was asked by a senator whether Facebook is being used by “authoritarian or terrorist leaders” in the world. She said that such use of the platforms was happening “certainly” and that Facebook was “very aware” of it.

“My team worked directly on tracking Chinese participation on the platform, for example monitoring Uyghur populations around the world. You might actually find the Chinese based on them to do this stuff.” , Haugen said. “We have also seen active participation of, say, the Iranian government spying on other state actors.”

She then called Facebook’s “constant understaffing” of counterintelligence and counterterrorism teams a “national security problem.”

“I have strong national security concerns about the way Facebook operates today,” Haugen said.

His comments on national security hinted at what may be Congress’ next investigation based on the leaked internal documents. Haugen said she already plans to discuss these concerns with other parts of Congress, and Blumenthal suggested that Facebook’s impact on national security could be the subject of a future subcommittee hearing with Haugen.

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