Transparency, Profits, Safety, and Democracy: Facebook Whistleblower Testifies Before Congress

View of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC

On October 5, the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security held a hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower.” The hearing featured Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who gave an interview with CBS News on October 4 in which she divulged information about the tech company’s handling of dangerous content on the site.

In the interview, she said that evidence from the “tens of thousands of pages of Facebook internal research” shows that “the company is lying to the public about making significant progress against hate, violence and misinformation,” the CBS News interview states.

Haugen has filed multiple whistleblower disclosures to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) outlining her allegations. Her disclosures are based upon the legal theory that Facebook is violating U.S. securities laws by misleading the public about its handling of criminal and illicit content on the site. This theory has been deployed by several other SEC whistleblowers over the past several years. Haugen’s allegations further supplement similar allegations made in those confidential filings.

Haugen’s Testimony Before Congress

Haugen worked at Facebook as a lead product manager on the company’s Civic Misinformation team. In her testimony, she talked about how Facebook has the power to be a positive influence in people’s lives, but decisions at the company continuously prioritized profits over the safety of vulnerable members of society and the stability of our democracy and countries around the globe.

“I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us, but I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” Haugen began in her testimony. “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. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Haugen talked about Facebook’s secrecy regarding internal reports and repeatedly expressed disapproval over its lack of transparency. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world. The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems, and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.”

“We can afford nothing less than full transparency,” Haugen stated. “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.” During the hearing, Haugen talked about because Facebook has not disclosed to the public how algorithms are shaping the content users see, there is no oversight of these mechanisms. She compared the secrecy of Facebook’s systems and the “inability to see into Facebook’s actual systems and confirm that they work as communicated is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway.” She reiterated multiple times during the hearing that “Facebook has not earned our blind faith.”

“I believe it is vitally important for our democracy that we establish mechanisms where Facebook’s internal research must be disclosed to the public on a regular basis and that we need to have privacy-sensitive data sets that allow independent researchers to confirm whether or not Facebook’s marketing messages are actually true,” Haugen said later on in the hearing in a response to one of the senator’s questions.

Haugen also continued to advocate for Congressional action to spur Facebook into making better choices for its platforms, noting that the changes she supports wouldn’t even necessarily lead to a financial loss for the tech company. “A lot of the changes that I’m talking about are not going to make Facebook an unprofitable company. It just won’t be a ludicrously-profitable company like it is today.” She proposed the idea of a regulatory body that could work with academics and researchers to better understand the way Facebook’s systems and algorithms work and come up with solutions for keeping users, especially children and teenagers, safe on the social media sites.

“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 our country was founded upon: free speech,” Haugen said. “They want you to believe that this is just part of the deal. I am here today to tell you that’s not true. These problems are solvable. A safer, free speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible.”

She also noted the importance of whistleblowers in the tech industry, which can be closed off from the public. “We need more tech employees to come forward through legitimate channels like the SEC or Congress to make sure that the public has the information they need in order to have technologies be human-centric, not computer-centric,” she said.

Haugen illustrated her fear for the platform and its effects on society if it remains unchecked, without transparency or accountability, and without Congressional action. “Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own. My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning. What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying no one wants to read the end of it.”

Many of the senators had questions for Haugen relating to the safety of children and teenagers on the platform, and the discrepancies between Facebook’s response to these questions and the realities displayed in the internal reports Haugen disclosed. “Many of Facebook’s internal research reports indicate that Facebook has a serious negative harm on a significant portion of teenagers and children,” Haugen said. She also discussed how Facebook’s amplification algorithms have, according to Facebook’s own research, been leading children from innocuous topics like healthy eating to harmful content about eating disorders in short periods of time. She also discussed bullying online and the fact that because parents did not grow up with social media and might not understand how addictive Instagram is, they are not fully equipped to support their children when they are exposed to dangerous content online.

Haugen also spent time explaining engagement-based ranking, a recommendation system that is part of the algorithm choosing what content users are exposed to. She pointed out that Facebook itself has admitted that engagement-based ranking is dangerous: “They can’t protect us from the harms that they know exist in their own system.” She also underscored another flaw in this system that involves language barriers. “Facebook also knows that they have admitted in public that engagement-based ranking is dangerous without integrity and security systems but then not rolled out those integrity and security systems to most of the languages in the world. And that’s what’s causing things like ethnic violence in Ethiopia.”

Overall, Haugen implored Congress to act and put in place regulations for Facebook to follow that would increase transparency, accountability, and oversight, especially where the functioning of algorithms are concerned.

“I came forward because I believe that every human being deserves the dignity of the truth,” Haugen said. Her disclosures have rocked the world and brought up serious concerns about a company that seems obstinate in addressing widespread problems that affect the entire world.

Watch the full hearing here.


Pressure on SEC to Investigate Facebook Mounts Following New Whistleblower Allegations

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