Facebook whistleblower hearing was conducted today (Sept 6) before the Senate, and Frances Haugen called for more regulation of tech giant.
Haugen’s opening statements
Frances Haugen 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.”
The key takeaways of Facebook whistleblower hearing
Here are some key takeaways from the first part of Frances Haugen’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.
- Frances 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.
- Frances 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.
Questions of Senators for Frances Haugen
Senator Ted Cruz asked Haugen specifics about research she witnessed and what measures could be taken to enact meaningful change at Facebook. She suggested 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
Senator Rick Scott of Florida asked 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 said “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.”
Haugen encourages more whistleblowers to come forward
In her closing statements, Frances 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.
What we know about the Facebook whistleblower
Background of Frances Haugen
Haugen grew up attending the Iowa caucuses with her parents, according to her personal website. That experience instilled “a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation,” the website added.
After studying electrical and computer engineering, followed by an MBA, Haugen worked at several tech firms starting in 2006, including Google, Pinterest and Yelp. She specializes in “algorithmic product management,” and has worked on several ranking algorithms similar to the one Facebook uses to organize its main newsfeed, according to her prepared testimony.
What Frances Haugen did
About a month ago, Haugen filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the company is hiding research about its shortcomings from investors and the public.
Haugen also shared the documents with the Wall Street Journal, which published a multi-part investigation showing that Facebook was aware of problems with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the harm caused, especially to young girls, by Instagram.
Haugen resigned from Facebook in April this year and left the company in May after handing off some projects, according to a profile in the Journal, but not before collecting the documents that would form the basis for the publication’s investigation.
“If people just hate Facebook more because of what I’ve done, then I’ve failed,” she told the Journal. “I believe in truth and reconciliation — we need to admit reality. The first step of that is documentation.”