What We Learned From the Facebook Whistleblower
Isadora Teich wrote this article
Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen had very damning things to say about the company when she testified before a Senate subcommittee earlier this month.
Facebook is famously secretive about how it runs its business, so Haugen provided a rare and, quite frankly, disturbing, window into their inner workings.
According to her, Facebook knowingly allows it products to create division, spread misinformation, and harm children and democracy in the pursuit of growth and profit.
Let’s take a look.
A History of Controversy At Facebook
Facebook is no stranger to controversy and accusation. Some of their more famous scandals involve their hotly debated role in enabling Russia to influence the 2016 election.
They also came under fire for the Cambridge Analytical Scandal, censoring POC users, and failing to stop users from inciting real-world violence.
Essentially, Facebook is known for abusing user information, failing to moderate, and making whatever apps they create or acquire unpleasant to use over time.
However, there are a few huge reasons why the revelations presented by Frances Haugen are different. Facebook has never faced such a crisis as a company before. Here is why.
The Call Is Coming From Inside The House
Haugen is not only an insider as a former Facebook employee of two years. At Facebook, her job was to study how Facebook’s algorithm amplifies false information and is abused by foreign agents.
While working for Facebook, Haugen would study the dangers inherent in their platform. She uncovered significant harm, and watched as the company ignored all of this information in favor of pursuing growth. She testified:
“The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.”
As Facebook is so secretive, a lot of the accusations against them are often without direct proof.
Many outsiders have abundant criticism, but not always evidence.
Haugen has done more than provide evidence. Before she left Facebook, she copied thousands of pages of internal documents proving her claims. She shared them with both lawmakers and the Wall Street Journal. Before Congress, Haugen said:
“During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world.”
While she is not the first Facebook employee to come forward in this manner, she is the first one to come armed with thousands of pages of documents to back up her claims.
Mark Zuckerberg shared a Facebook status reacting to Haugen’s testimony, in which he claims that many things she said do not make sense. For one, he implies that if Facebook did not care about understanding how it influences society, she would never have been hired in the first place.
Many of the claims don’t make any sense. If we wanted to ignore research, why would we create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues in the first place?
The post is a letter he shared with those who work at the company, trying to motivate and inspire them after the scorching testimony.
When I reflect on our work, I think about the real impact we have on the world — the people who can now stay in touch with their loved ones, create opportunities to support themselves, and find community. This is why billions of people love our products. I’m proud of everything we do to keep building the best social products in the world and grateful to all of you for the work you do here every day.
What Haugen Leaked
She showed proof that Facebook understands the negative effects its products have on children and continues to try and court them anyway.
Remember when Facebook’s idea to create an Instagram app just for kids was universally reviled by journalists, legislators, and seemingly the entire internet?
Haugen leaked multiple studies by Facebook on teen girl Instagram users in the UK. The results were very telling.
13.5% of teen girls in the UK said their suicidal thoughts increased since starting on Instagram. 17% of teen girls said it made their eating disorders worse. On top of this, nearly a third of teen girls said it made them feel worse about their bodies.
Despite these internal studies and claims in the press to put the well-being of users first, Facebook was pushing to get even younger kids on Instagram. Without backlash, they likely would have gone forward with their Instagram lite app for kids under 13.
Facebook Is A Bipartisan Concern
In such a politically divided climate, it is rare that people on the left and right agree on anything. However, in this case, politicians on both sides of the aisle have grave concerns over how Facebook operates.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, has repeatedly expressed concerns that Facebook targets children and puts profit before the wellbeing of its users of all ages.
Subcommittee Chair Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., even spoke at a press conference about unusual bipartisan unity in this case.
“If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t know if it was a Republican or a Democrat. Every part of the country has the harms that are inflicted by Facebook and Instagram.”
Why Has This Happened?
Haugen says the engagement-based algorithms on Facebook and Instagram are the source of many of these issues. Instead of seeing what their friends or favorite pages post in chronological order, users get exposed to whatever the algorithm decides that they want.
The algorithm rewards engagement blindly. That means that even if harmful misinformation or violent extremist content gets a lot of likes or comments, that content will be rewarded with more reach.
The algorithm is set up to show you what it thinks you want to see to keep you clicking. In some cases, this is content that causes people to harm themselves and others.
“It is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content. It is pulling families apart. And in places like Ethiopia, it’s literally fanning ethnic violence.”
What Can Legislators Do?
She hopes that reforms need to make these platforms less of a viral-based free-for-all.
Legislators are considering poking holes in an old law, Section 230, which immunizes social media companies against any harm that they cause against private citizens in court. Essentially, it means that social media companies are not legally responsible for what users post.
Some are in favor of labeling Facebook an illegal monopoly and breaking it up. Others, like Haugen, say that this would only make these issues worse.
Has Facebook Broken Laws?
Haugen alleges that Facebook has committed a number of crimes. Her lawyers have filed 8 complaints with the SEC. According to her team, Facebook knew very well how some of its users were using the platform to coordinate the Jan. 6th terrorist attack on the capital in which 5 people died.
Her team alleges that not only is Facebook aware of the harm its products do, but chooses to hide and omit this information. Facebook also allegedly broke US securities laws by lying to investors.
This is definitely an interesting situation. Especially considering whistleblower laws only protect Haugen in some cases.
Facebook has actually accused her of stealing internal documents and could potentially sue her for leaking them to the press.
What do you think of this situation? Comment below.
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