Facebook products ‘harm children, stoke division’: Whistleblower

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

During a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, Frances Haugen called for transparency about how Facebook entices users to keep scrolling, creating ample opportunity for advertisers to reach them.

“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable,” said Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team. She left the nearly $1 trillion company with tens of thousands of confidential documents.

“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. Congressional action is needed,” Haugen said.

Her testimony came a day after Facebook and two of its main services, Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp, suffered an hours-long global outage, 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 October 3 and revealed she was the one who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram’s alleged harm.

The WSJ stories showed the company contributed to increased polarisation online when it made changes to its content algorithm; failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy, and was aware that Instagram harmed 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 accusations were at odds with 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 consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed.”

A Facebook spokesperson, Kevin McAlister, earlier said in an email to the Reuters news agency that the company sees protecting its community as more important than maximising profits. He also said it was inaccurate to say that leaked internal research demonstrated that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage girls.

That echoed testimony 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 the people on our platform,” Davis said at that time.