In an hours-long hearing Tuesday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told US lawmakers that regulating, rather than dividing, Facebook could force it to address security issues highlighted in leaked internal documents.
The former Facebook product manager revealed her identity in a television interview on Sunday after leaking a series of damaging investigative reports to the Wall Street Journal last month.
Later on Tuesday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence on the unfolding crisis in a memo posted on his Facebook page, stating that Haugen’s allegations “don’t make sense” and that the company cares “deeply” about security issues.
Here are four key takeaways from his testimony at the latest high-profile Senate hearing on big technology.
Facebook knows its algorithms are hurting people
“Facebook products harm children, fuel division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen told the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection for Commerce.
A fundamental problem is that Facebook’s advertising-based business model needs to keep people on its platforms for as long as possible, and the company exploits negative emotions to achieve this, Haugen said.
“They know that algorithm-based rankings, or rankings based on engagement, keep you on their sites for longer. You have longer sessions, you show up more often, and that makes them more money,” he told the committee.
In his memo on Tuesday, Zuckerberg refuted the claim that Facebook’s algorithm preyed on negative emotions like anger, saying that “the argument that we deliberately promote content that enrages people for profit is deeply illogical.”
“We make money from ads and advertisers are constantly telling us that they don’t want their ads alongside harmful or angry content,” he said.
“The company leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram more secure, but they will not make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before the people,” Haugen added.
Facebook has structural problems
Haugen also claimed that Facebook has a chronic tendency to understaff its teams, which affects its ability to effectively monitor and respond to harmful content on its platforms.
“Facebook is caught in a cycle where it has a hard time hiring. That makes the projects understaffed, which creates scandals, which then makes it more difficult to recruit, ”Haugen said.
“I worked on the counterintelligence team and at one point our team could only handle a third of the cases that we knew about,” he told senators.
Facebook’s data-driven corporate environment was also identified as contributing to the company’s problems. “Mark has built an organization that relies heavily on metrics. It is meant to be flat. There is no unilateral responsibility, ”Haugen said.
“The metrics make the decision.”
Haugen told the committee that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who controls more than half of the voting shares in the company, was ultimately responsible for how it operated.
“In the end, the ball stops with Mark,” he said.
Haugen doesn’t want to break Facebook
During his testimony, Haugen rejected the idea of dividing the company, an idea raised by critics and some lawmakers.
Instead, he argued, the company should be forced to make changes like switching to a chronological newsfeed and asking users to read an article before publishing it.
“Facebook’s internal investigation says that each of those small actions dramatically reduces disinformation, hate speech and content that incites violence on the platform,” he said.
When asked if such changes would make Facebook unprofitable, Haugen pointed to the company’s current high profitability – it made a profit of $ 29 billion (€ 25 billion) in 2020.
“The changes I’m talking about today would not make Facebook unprofitable,” Haugen told the committee.
“It just wouldn’t be a ridiculously profitable company. People would consume less content on Facebook, but Facebook would still be profitable.”
In his memo on Tuesday, Zuckerberg reiterated that he was in favor of some regulation of social media.
“Similar to balancing other social issues, I don’t think private companies should make all the decisions themselves,” he wrote.
“We are committed to doing the best job we can, but at some level, the right body to assess the tradeoffs between social actions is our democratically elected Congress,” Zuckerberg said.
The testimony touched a nerve
Facebook representatives attempted to reject Haugen’s testimony in real time, with company spokesman Andy Stone tweeting that she was not involved in child safety or Instagram during her time at the company.
“I only point to the fact that Frances Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the issue from her work on Facebook,” he said.
A company statement released after the Senate hearing ended doubled down on Stone’s comment, calling Haugen inexperienced and ignorant of the issue.
“Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision point meeting with C-level executives, and he testified more than six times not to work on the issue in question, “said a statement from Facebook’s director of policy communications Lana Pietsch.
This prompted Samidh Chakrabarti, a former leader of the Civic Integrity political disinformation team that Haugen was a part of during his time on Facebook, to respond to the company on Twitter.
“I’ve been there for over six years, had numerous direct reports, and conducted many decision meetings with C-level executives, and I find that the shared perspectives on the need for algorithmic regulation, investigative transparency, and independent oversight are fully valid for the debate., “he said.
“So Facebook, let’s dispense with ad hominem distraction and instead focus on the actual discussion of the issues at hand and the proposals that are being presented. The public deserves better.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism