Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Haugen’s testimony came after a few tumultuous weeks for Facebook. The whistleblower worked with The Wall Street Journal to expose Facebook’s knowledge of the kind of harmful content on its platform can do to Facebook customers. Haugen then appeared on CBS News’s 60 Minutes, where she disclosed her identity. Facebook has denied Haugen’s claims earlier this week, but Mark Zuckerberg’s voice was conspicuously absent.
The whistleblower offered Congress the same details about Facebook’s profit-driven decisions that can impact the safety of Facebook and Instagram users. The whistleblower alleged that Facebook is deeply aware of the harm that results from the polarizing content on Facebook. Similarly, it knows how Instagram content can impact children. Yet Facebook isn’t doing anything to change its algorithms that power the social networks. Altering the algorithms would impact Facebook’s bottom line directly.
As the undisputed head of the company, who is in total control of everything that has to do with Facebook, Zuckerberg did not provide any official comments until Tuesday afternoon. He waited for Haugen to testify in front of Congress before issuing a reaction to the Facebook whistleblower.
Facebook whistleblower’s Congress hearing
The whistleblower said in her opening remarks that she “came forward because I recognized a frightening truth: almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook.”
“The company’s leadership keeps vital information from the public, the US government, its shareholders, and governments around the world,” Haugen continued. “The documents I have provided prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled us about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, its role in spreading hateful and polarizing messages, and so much more.”
Haugen reiterated her claims from her previous disclosures to The Journal and 60 Minutes in her remarks and answers to Committee members. She told a story of a company that is prioritizing profit over everything else. In turn, this can make Facebook and Instagram less safe for certain groups of people.
Haugen said that “in the end,” it’s Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that bears ultimate responsibility for what happens at Facebook. “There’s no one currently holding Mark accountable.”
Haugen made an impact on Congress
Representatives from both parties seemed disturbed by the new allegations and ready to take more action. After all, this isn’t the first scandal that Facebook had to defend itself against in Congress. The strongest message came from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who called out Facebook’s CEO:
Here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens is over. Congress will be taking action. You can work with us or not work with us, but we will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracies any longer. Thank you, Ms. Haugen. We will act.
In his opening remarks, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) noted Zuckerberg’s absence from the debate.
Rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing
Zuckerberg finally responds to whistleblower
Facebook’s CEO responded to the whistleblower’s allegations on Tuesday, after the hearing. He wrote a lengthy post on Facebook addressing the company, but also the public. In it, the CEO said that everything in Haugen’s disclosures isn’t true or doesn’t make sense:
I’m sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know. We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health. It’s difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.
He said many of the claims “don’t make sense” and that Facebook doesn’t ignore internal research. In a series of rhetorical questions, Zuckerberg noted that Facebook cares about fighting harmful content, and it’s transparent about its results. He also implied that Facebook alone isn’t at fault for polarizing content increasing in the US compared to other regions.
“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being,” Zuckerberg added. “That’s just not true.”
Calling for Congress oversight
He also addressed the whistleblower’s claims about harmful Instagram content that impacts children.
But of everything published, I’m particularly focused on the questions raised about our work with kids. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids. […]
Like many of you, I found it difficult to read the mischaracterization of the research into how Instagram affects young people. […]
But when it comes to young people’s health or well-being, every negative experience matters. It is incredibly sad to think of a young person in a moment of distress who, instead of being comforted, has their experience made worse. We have worked for years on industry-leading efforts to help people in these moments and I’m proud of the work we’ve done. We constantly use our research to improve this work further.
Zuckerberg never mentioned Haugen’s name once in his remarks. But he insisted that her disclosures are falsehoods that mischaracterize the work Facebook is doing.
He also called out on Congress to help regulate the internet. The remark came during his defense of Facebook’s work to protect young people from harmful content.
Zuckerberg’s full post is available at this link and via The Verge. Separately, the whistleblower’s complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are available at this link via Gizmodo.
Finally, Haugen’s testimony is available on YouTube, as seen below.