This concludes the testimony of Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen in US Congress on Tuesday. She spoke for hours, painting a dire picture of the company’s policies and offering suggestions of how to fix a company she called “morally bankrupt”.
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 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 like 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 to changing a tech company for the better. It may have been the most useful Big Tech hearing yet.
Social media’s impact on children
Tuesday’s hearing was prompted by 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. 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.
She said she does not believe Facebook when it says it is suspending Instagram Kids, its platform for young users that has been widely criticized. “I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram Kids.”
Fresh calls for regulation
Haugen argued that Facebook needs more regulation, painting a picture of 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 cigarettes,” said senator Ed Markey. “A first social media account designed to keep kids as users for life.”
“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 f of the US, saying that the company does not dedicate equal amounts of research and resources to misinformation and hate speech to non-English content. That resource gap, she said, that is fueling violence in places like Ethiopia, she contended .
And on Facebook’s lack of transparency
Haugen also condemned Facebook’s lack of transparency and suppression of research, both internally and by outside auditors. 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 suggested several measures that could be taken to regulate Facebook, that will surely be debated in the weeks to come. Those measures include an independent government body staffed by former tech workers who understand how the algorithm works, changing the Newsfeed to be chronological rather than ranking content through an opaque algorithm and requiring Facebook to publicly disclose its internal research.
After the hearing came to a close, more reactions to Haugen’s testimony have emerged. Key takeaways? The whistleblower’s intensive expertise and concrete suggestions to fix Facebook made this one of the most productive hearings we have seen on Big Tech.
One suggestion Haugen repeatedly returned to was abolishing the newsfeed, the potential impact of which cannot be understated.
Some disagree on the best way to address these issues, however, with internet freedom advocates warning against chipping away at Section 230.
The focus from Haugen on international implications of Facebook’s toxic algorithms was appreciated by a number of experts.
The comparisons to Big Tobacco and its regulation were frequent today.
Meanwhile, others believe Facebook is irreparable, and that even the intensive measures proposed by Haugen cannot save it.
Hearing comes to a close as Haugen encourages more whistleblowers to come forward
Blumenthal ended the hearing with an emotional statement. He read aloud a text he received from a constituent who said he was “in tears” listening to Haugen’s testimony. A full transcription of that poignant message below:
My 15-year-old daughter loved her body - and at 14 was on Instagram constantly, and maybe posting too much. Suddenly, she started hating her body. With her body dysmorphia, and now anorexia, she was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear shall never be the same. I am broken hearted.
In her closing statements, Haugen underscored the lack of transparency from Big Tech and encouraged her fellow tech workers to speak with bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress “in order to have technologies be human centric, not computer centric.”
“We live in a moment when whistleblowers are very important because these technological systems are walled off,” she said.
In questioning with Senator Amy Klobuchar, Haugen again condemns Facebook’s lack of transparency and suppression of research – both internally and by outside auditors.
She referenced Facebook’s decision in August to revoke NYU researchers’ access to platform data about the spread of vaccine misinformation. She said she “stands with” researchers who Facebook is “throwing under the bus” in its own interest.
“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.
There is a lot of discussion about Section 230 reform and whether it could effectively address these issues.
Section 230 refers to a portion of the US internet regulation that exempts platforms from legal liability for content generated by its users.
Haugen says Facebook has claimed in the past it has “the right to mislead the court” because it has immunity under Section 230 “so why should they have to tell the truth?”
There has been significant discussion in recent years about whether the regulation should be modified or overturned, which some internet freedom advocates warn could have unintended effects.
Other bills, like Markey’s KIDS act, would regulate algorithms without taking away section 230 protections.
Senator Rick Scott of Florida asks Haugen why Facebook has not been more proactive about addressing the issues brought up in these hearings and recent Wall Street Journal reports. As many Senators have noted, Zuckerberg is sailing this week.
Haugen takes a softer view on this, saying “I have a huge amount of empathy for Facebook.”
“These are really, really hard questions and I think they feel a little trapped and isolated,” she said.
She added that most social media firms have a strong hold on the positive purposes of their platforms, but that Instagram is “distinctly worse” than others.
“TikTok is about doing fun things with your friends, Snapchat is about faces and augmented reality, Reddit is about ideas,” she said. “But Instagram is about bodies, and about comparing lifestyles.”
Now we have Senator Ted Cruz asking Haugen specifics about research she witnessed and what measures could be taken to enact meaningful change at Facebook. She suggests the following:
- Introducing friction to amplification - for example, a tool like Twitter has that requires users to click through a link before sharing it
- Change the Newsfeed to be chronological rather than ranking content through its opaque algorithm
- Convening a board in the public sector to regulate Facebook that is comprised of researchers, former tech workers who understand the algorithms, and legislators
- Requiring Facebook to publicly disclose its internal research
The key takeaways so far
The session is coming back from a brief recess. Here are some key takeaways from the first part of today’s testimony:
- Facebook intentionally targets teens including children under the age of 13, Haugen says her documents show.
- Lack of transparency around how Facebook’s algorithms work make it impossible to regulate, Haugen says.
- Senators are repeatedly comparing Facebook to Big Tobacco, suggesting we may see similar regulation to the platform as we have seen of cigarettes in the past: “A first social media account designed to keep kids as users for life,” said Sen. Ed Markey.
- The platform does not dedicate equal amounts of research and resources to misinformation and hate speech to non-English content, Haugen says, fueling violence in places like Ethiopia.
- Haugen has stressed that Facebook tends to rely on artificial intelligence to automate moderation, even though it only catches about 10-20% of offending content, because it is cheaper.
- Haugen suggested a number of measures to be taken to regulate Facebook, including an independent government body staffed by former tech workers who understand how the algorithm works.
Now we are moving into questioning from Senator Ed Markey, who called Haugen a “21st century American hero” and said Americans owe “a huge debt of gratitude” to her for her courage.
He asked about whether Facebook purposely targets children, to which Haugen replies the company absolutely targets users under the age of 18.
“Facebook is like Big Tobacco, enticing young kids with that first cigarettes,” he said. “A first social media account designed to keep kids as users for life.”
Markey is promoting his KIDS act - an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act that would prevent companies from collecting certain data on children and to prohibit the use of algorithms that promote toxic posts.
“Here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content in preying on children and teens is over,” Markey said. “Congress will be taking action. We will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy, any longer.”
From my colleague David Smith, who is in person at the testimony in Washington DC.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is delivering clear and crisp answers, with elaborate hand gestures for emphasis, at a Senate hearing where she is preaching to the converted.
I’m among about 30 masked people in the public and press gallery sitting behind Haugen, who is alone at a long desk with two bottles of Mountain Valley water and a microphone before her. The latter has a red digital clock that counts down each senator’s question time.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, chairing, focused on Haugen during her opening statement as other senators frequently looked down at their notes. He evidently liked her suggestion that Facebook should declare “moral bankruptcy”. Comparisons with Big Tobacco are also striking a chord.
Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview means there are few surprises and the atmosphere is not quite as electrifying as Facebook’s critics would like, with senators such as Ted Cruz drifting in and out of the compact room and John Thune rocking back and forth in his chair.
Senator Roger Wicker sought to reassure Haugen: “You see some vacant seats. This is a pretty good attendance for a subcommittee.” Wicker has since left the room.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah is talking about advertising targeted at young users, to which Haugen replies that it is “very, very difficult” to understand the algorithms used to regulate such posts.
Haugen is suggesting a regulatory agency within the federal government dedicated to policing Facebook, staffed with people who have expertise in algorithms to make meaningful change.
“Right now the only people in the world who are trained to analyze these experiments to understand what’s happening inside of Facebook are people who have spent time there,” she said.
Haugen does not believe Facebook when it says it is suspending Instagram Kids, its platform for young users that has been widely criticized.
“I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram Kids, and I would be amazed if a year from now we don’t have this conversation again,” she said.
A lot of talk about exactly how algorithmic amplification works. The platform prioritizes content more people click on, which is usually inflammatory or political content.
Amy Klobuchar calls out the amount of lobbying money Facebook spends in Washington.
“I think the time has come for action and I think you are the catalyst for that action,” she says.
“We have not done anything to update our privacy laws in this country because there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry,” she added.
Facebook spent more than any other Big Tech company in 2020 on lobbying at $19.68 million a 17.8% increase from 2019.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone has weighed in on Twitter about some of Haugen’s allegations surrounding children’s content policies.
This is technically true, but Haugen has repeatedly noted that many employees inside Facebook had access to the research documents she obtained and turned over to Congress as well as the Wall Street Journal.
Haugen paints a picture of Facebook in which the company lacks the staffing and expertise 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.”
We are now moving into questioning of Haugen. Blumenthal has asked about specific proof Facebook’s platforms are harmful to children.
Haugen says Facebook’s own studies show how easily its algorithms can lead children from innocuous content like healthy recipes to anorexia-promoting content over a short period of time.
She said Facebook research also showed more than 6% of kids admit they are so addicted to Instagram it is “materially harming” health, school work, and physical health – but that she believes that number is likely higher.
He also asked about the internal structures that manage policies, prompting Haugen to explain that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a disproportionate amount of control over Facebook and its policies as he owns more than 55% of the voting shares in the company.
“There is nobody currently holding Zuckerberg accountable but himself,” Haugen said.
Haugen: 'We can afford nothing less than full transparency'
Haugen condemned the extreme secrecy and lack of transparency around Facebook and how its algorithms work.
She said regulators cannot take action against Facebook when they do not know enough about what causes the problems or how to solve them.
“We can afford nothing less than full transparency,” she said. “As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows and hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change.”
Haugen gives opening statements
After some statements from Blumenthal and others, Haugen is giving her opening testimony.
She repeatedly said that Facebook is not inherently evil and social media could be moderated to be less toxic to its users, but that Congressional action is needed to do so.
“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” she 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.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal has kicked off the hearing with opening statements, laying out the revelations about Facebook made public by Haugen and condemning the company for pursuing profit above all else.
He noted one of the biggest bombshells from the documents - proof that Facebook knew its products were harming teenagers and uses its algorithms “to amplify their insecurities”.
“Their profit was more important than the pain that it caused,” he said.
Blumenthal drew parallels between Facebook and Big Tobacco - a comparison a number of Senators have made in the wake of Haugen’s whistleblowing. He said Big Tech is facing its “Big Tobacco moment”.
“There is documented proof that Facebook knows its products can be addictive and toxic to children, and it is not just that they made money - it’s that they valued their more than the pain they caused to children and their families,” he said.
“The damage to self worth, inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation,” he added. “Feelings of inadequacy and insecurity and rejection and self-hatred will impact this generation for years.”
Haugen said Facebook proved it could do more to address its problems when it changed content policies for several weeks surrounding the 2020 US elections.
At that time, she said, the company deliberately gave a lower priority to political content on its news feed. But it soon went back to old algorithms that valued engagement over all else.
“These documents that you have revealed provided this company with a blueprint for reform have provided specific recommendations that could have made, Facebook and Instagram safer,” Blumenthal said.
“The company repeatedly ignored those recommendations from its own researchers,” Blumenthal said. “Facebook, as you put it is having so powerfully maximizes profits and ignores pain.”
He submitted into evidence a letter from 52 state attorneys general about the need to hold Facebook accountable.
Blumenthal also touted legislation he has introduced with Sen. Ed Markey. Called the KIDS act, it would regulate the design of social platform to minimize harm.
Frances Haugen to testify before the Senate
Welcome to the liveblog.
The former employee who has accused Facebook of putting profit over safety is testifying before the Senate today.
Frances Haugen, 37, came forward on Sunday as the whistleblower behind a series of damaging reports in the Wall Street Journal that have heaped political pressure on Facebook. Haugen told the news program 60 Minutes that Facebook’s priority was making money over doing what was good for the public.
According to her prepared remarks, Haugen will tell lawmakers that Facebook faces little oversight, and she’ll urge Congress to take action. “As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one. And it will continue to make choices that go against the common good,” she wrote in her written testimony.