Facebook products ‘harm children, fuel division’: whistleblower | Social Media News

A whistleblower has accused Facebook of putting profit before people as she told Congress that its products hurt the mental health of some young users, fuel divisions and weaken democracy.

At a Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing, Frances Haugen called for transparency on how Facebook encourages users to continue scrolling, creating plenty of opportunities for advertisers to reach them.

“As long as Facebook operates in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it’s irresponsible,” said Haugen, a former product manager for Facebook’s civic misinformation team. She left the nearly trillion-dollar company with tens of thousands of confidential documents.

“Corporate executives know how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they’ve put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed,” Haugen said.

His testimony came a day after Facebook and two of its main services, Instagram and messaging app WhatsApp, suffered a global outage lasting several hours, and after weeks of mounting pressure on the social media company to explain its policies for young users.

Haugen went public in an interview with CBS on Oct. 3 and revealed that she was the one who provided the documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing into alleged Instagram harm.

WSJ stories showed the company contributed to increased online polarization when it made changes to its content algorithm; did not take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy and was aware that Instagram was damaging the mental health of teenage girls.

Hours after Haugen’s testimony, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg defended his company in a public Facebook post, saying the charges contradicted Facebook’s goals.

“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” he wrote. “We make money from ads, and advertisers constantly tell us that they don’t want their ads next to harmful or aggressive content. And I don’t know of any tech companies that are out to create products that make people angry or depressed.

A Facebook spokesman, Kevin McAlister, earlier said in an email to Reuters news agency that the company considers protecting its community more important than maximizing profits. He also said it was incorrect to say that leaked internal research showed Instagram was “toxic” to teenage girls.

This echoed testimony from Facebook’s head of global security, Antigone Davis, delivered before the same Senate committee last week. “We care deeply about the safety and security of people on our platform,” Davis said at the time.

“We take the issue very seriously…We have several safeguards in place to create safe and age-appropriate experiences for ages 13-17.”

“Breathtaking Moment”

At a time of deep political divisions in Washington, DC, Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed on the need for big change.

In an opening statement, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the hearing subcommittee, said Facebook knew its products were addictive, like cigarettes.

“Tech now faces this jaw-dropping moment of truth from Big Tobacco,” Blumenthal said.

He called for Zuckerberg to appear before the committee and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company.

Facebook has dismissed the charges, saying it considers protecting its community more important than profits [Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg]

“Our children are the victims. Today’s teenagers who look in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg should look in the mirror,” Blumenthal said.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said Facebook turns a blind eye to children under 13 on its sites. “It’s clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users,” Blackburn said.

Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from Capitol Hill, said regulating content on Facebook and other social media platforms could prove tricky for Congress, given the protections given to free speech in under the First Amendment.

“The question becomes, ‘Well, what criteria will be used and who will oversee that,'” Rattansi said.

Still, Jason Kint, CEO of business organization Digital Content Next, said Tuesday’s viewership was significant. “What’s different right now is that we have evidence from inside the building,” he told Al Jazeera.

“What this hearing provides is evidence that they knew and there was actual empirical data supporting all of this downstream damage to the operation of the platform.”