Facebook whistleblower accuses firm of serially misleading over safety

Frances Haugen filed at least eight complaints against the company regarding its approach to safety

The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who testifies at the US Congress on Tuesday, has filed at least eight complaints with the US financial watchdog accusing the social media company of serially misleading investors about its approach to safety and the size of its audience.

The complaints, published online by the news programme 60 Minutes late on Monday, hours before Haugen’s testimony to US senators at 10am EDT (3pm BST), are based on tens of thousands of internal documents that Haugen copied shortly before she quit Facebook in May.

The complaints and testimony from Haugen, who stepped forward on Sunday as the source of a damning series of revelations in the Wall Street Journal, are taking place against a backdrop of operational chaos for Facebook, whose platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp, went offline around the world for nearly six hours on Monday.

The first whistleblower complaint filed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission relates to the 6 January riots in Washington, when crowds of protesters stormed the Capitol, and alleges that Facebook knowingly chose to permit political misinformation and contests statements made by its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to the contrary.

“Our anonymous client is disclosing original evidence showing that Facebook … has, for years past and ongoing, violated US securities laws by making material misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors and prospective investors,” the sweeping opening statement reads, “including, inter alia, through filings with the SEC, testimony to Congress, online statements and media stories.”

The complaints against Facebook, which reflect a series of reports in the Wall Street Journal in recent weeks, also cover:

  • The company’s approach to hate speech.

  • Its approach to teenage mental health.

  • Its monitoring of human trafficking.

  • How the company’s algorithms promoted hate speech.

  • Preferential disciplinary treatment for VIP users.

  • Promoting ethnic violence.

  • Failing to inform investors about a shrinking user base in certain demographics.

The first complaint, regarding 6 January, contests testimony given to Congress in March by Facebook’s founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, in which he stated that: “We remove language that incites or facilitates violence, and we ban groups that proclaim a hateful and violent mission.”

The complaint rebuts this, claiming that the company’s own records show it “knowingly chose to permit political misinformation and violent content/groups and failed to adopt or continue measures to combat these issues, including as related to the 2020 US election and the 6 January insurrection, in order to promote virality and growth on its platforms.”

According to one internal Facebook document quoted in the complaints, the company admits: “For example, we estimate that we may action as little as 3-5% of hate [speech] and ~0.6% of V&V [violent and inciting content] on Facebook.”

A complaint also alleges that Facebook misrepresented its “reach and frequency”, which are key metrics for the advertisers who provide the majority of Facebook’s revenue. That included concealing a decline in the key demographic of young users, the complaint stated. “During Covid, every cohort’s use of Facebook increased, except for those 23 and under, which continued to decline,” the complaint said.

“For years, Facebook has misrepresented core metrics to investors and advertisers including the amount of content produced on its platforms and growth in individual users,” it said, adding this applied particularly in “high-value demographics” such as US teenagers.

Facebook has been approached for comment.

The human trafficking complaint alleges that Facebook and its photo-sharing app, Instagram, were aware in 2019 that the platforms were being used to “promote human trafficking and domestic servitude”. The hate speech complaint quotes another internal document that states: “We only take action against approximately 2% of the hate speech on the platform.” The teen health complaint focuses on the most damaging allegation from the WSJ series: that Instagram knew the app caused anxiety about body image among teenage girls.

A complaint about Facebook’s approach to algorithms alleges that a tweak to the app’s News Feed product – a key part of users’ interaction with the app – led to the prioritisation of divisive content, while the complaint about ethnic violence contains an excerpt from an internal study that claims “in the Afghanistan market, the action rate for hate speech is worryingly low”.

Facebook has issued a series of statements downplaying Haugen’s document leaks, saying: its Instagram research showed that many teens found the app helpful; it was investing heavily in security at the expense of its bottom line; polarisation had been growing in the US for decades before Facebook appeared; and the company had “made fighting misinformation and providing authoritative information a priority”.

Responding to accusations that Facebook had misled the public and regulators, the company said: “We stand by our public statements and are ready to answer any questions regulators may have about our work.”


Dan Milmo Global technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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