A Former Facebook data scientist told US Congress yesterday that the social network giant’s products harm children and fuel polarisation in the US.
Frances Haugen (37) added that its executives refuse to change because they elevate profits over safety. She said responsibility for that lies right at the top, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Ms Haugen, testifying to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, also offered ideas about how Facebook’s social media platforms could be made safer. Though she was sharply critical of the company, she saw the possibility of constructive action and expressed some empathy for Facebook’s dilemma.
Ms Haugen, for example, suggested that the minimum age for Facebook’s popular Instagram photo-sharing platform could be increased from the current 13 to 16 or 18.
Speaking confidently at a charged hearing, Ms Haugen accused the company of being aware of apparent harm to some teens from Instagram and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.
“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Ms Haugen 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.”
Ms Haugen said that while the company openly acknowledged that integrity controls were critical for internal systems that stoke the engagement of users, it failed to fully deploy some of those tools.
In dialogue with receptive senators of both parties, Ms Haugen, who focused on algorithm products in her work at Facebook, explained the importance to the company of algorithms that govern what shows up on users’ news feeds. She said a 2018 change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.
Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, she said Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back — a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate the vast majority of its revenue.
“In the end, the buck stops with Mark,” Ms Haugen said, referring to Mr Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50pc of Facebook’s voting shares.
“There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.” Ms Haugen said she believed that Mr Zuckerberg was familiar with some of the internal research showing concerns for potential negative impacts of Instagram.
The subcommittee is examining Facebook’s use of information its own researchers compiled about Instagram. Those findings could indicate potential harm for some of its young users, especially girls, although Facebook publicly downplayed possible negative impacts.
For some of the teens devoted to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research leaked by Ms Haugen showed.
One internal study cited 13.5pc of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17pc of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.
Because of the drive for user engagement, Ms Haugen testified, “Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content. … It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have any self-regulation. We need to protect the kids.”
Ms Haugen buttressed her wide-ranging condemnation of Facebook with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit.
She also has filed complaints with federal authorities alleging that Facebook’s own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest, but that the company hides what it knows.
“The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world,” Ms Haugen said.
The former employee challenging the social network with 2.8 billion users worldwide and nearly $1trn in market value is a data expert from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in business from Harvard.