The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before the US Congress on Tuesday, painting a dire picture of the tech giant’s policies.
Haugen’s appearance in front of the US Senate is just the latest high-profile hearing on big tech, but it proved a substantive and insightful session that is sure to have a lasting impact.
One of the most useful big tech hearings yet
US lawmakers have held several high-profile hearings on the practices of prominent tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon in the past years, but we have rarely seen testimony from a witness who has so much expertise and so many actionable suggestions for improving a tech company. It may have been the most useful big tech hearing yet.
Haugen’s testimony echoed concerns from activists and researchers that Facebook systematically promotes harmful content and encourages engagement at all costs. “The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, our public safety, our privacy and for our democracy,” she said.
Social media’s impact on children
Tuesday’s hearing followed a Wall Street Journal report that revealed that Facebook had put aside its own research on the negative impact of its Instagram app on children. Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook intentionally targets teens, including children under the age of 13. She added she does not believe Facebook when it says it is suspending Instagram Kids, its platform for young users.
Just last week, Facebook’s head of safety Antigone Davis had responded to questions about the company’s targeting of young users by emphasizing that children under the age of 13 were not allowed on Facebook.
Fresh calls for regulation
Haugen argued that Facebook needs more regulation, portraying a company that lacks the staffing, expertise and transparency needed to make meaningful change.
“Facebook is stuck in a cycle where it struggles to hire,” she says. “That causes it to understaff projects, which causes scandals, which then makes it harder to hire.”
Senators seemed to agree
Senators repeatedly compared Facebook to big tobacco, suggesting we may see similar regulation to the platform as we have seen of cigarettes in the past. “Facebook is like big tobacco, enticing young kids with that first cigarette,” said Senator Ed Markey. “Congress will be taking action. We will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy, any longer,” Markey added.
A spotlight on Facebook’s role abroad
Haugen put the spotlight on the impact of Facebook’s policy decisions outside the US, saying that the company does not dedicate equal amounts of research and resources to misinformation and hate speech to non-English content. “Facebook invests more in users that make them more money, even though danger may not be evenly distributed based on profitability,” she said.
Haugen said 87% of misinformation spending at Facebook is on English content when only 9% of users are English speakers. That resource gap, she said, is fueling violence in places like Ethiopia.
And on Facebook’s lack of transparency
Haugen also said Facebook lacks transparency, and urged lawmakers to demand more insight in the company’s research. She referenced Facebook’s decision in August to revoke the access of researchers of New York University to the platform’s data about the spread of vaccine misinformation.
“The fact that Facebook is so scared of even basic transparency, that it goes out of its way to block researchers who are asking awkward questions, shows the need for congressional oversight,” she said.
An array of possible next steps
Haugen stopped short of calling for a breakup of the company, but suggested several measures that could be taken to regulate it.
Those measures include an independent government body staffed by former tech workers who understand how the algorithm works, changing the news feed to be chronological rather than ranking content through an opaque algorithm and requiring Facebook to publicly disclose its internal research.
She encouraged the company to accept help from outsiders, offering empathy to Facebook and conceding “these are really, really hard questions” to address.
Following the hearing, Facebook spokeswoman Lena Pietsch said in a statement that the company doesn’t agree with Haugen’s characterizations. “Despite all this, we agree on one thing: it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet,” she added. “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.”