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Opinion: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen confirms our worst fears

Jill FilipovicJill Filipovic
Facebook denies many of these accusations or says that the issues are more complex than they appear. But on Tuesday, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who earlier this week gave an explosive interview to 60 Minutes, testified before Congress that Facebook is indeed damaging girls’ body image, dividing the nation, and allowing extremism to thrive — and worse, that the company knows it, and chooses to largely ignore the problem to protect its profits.
Her words were damning. The question now is whether American politicians will stand up to one of the most powerful companies in the world, or whether they’ll continue to allow Facebook to rake in profits at the expense of the public — because many of them benefit from the misinformation campaigns Facebook allows.
Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who worked on civic integrity issues, testified that “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more.”
Facebook’s own internal research, she said, demonstrated just how dangerous the company’s products are, and yet the company did little to change — fearful, Haugen said, of compromising its own profits. That research showed, for example, that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is devastating to girls’ self-esteem:
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls,” said one company slide, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. In public, though, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits” — words he uttered under oath at a congressional hearing in March.
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The same Journal investigation showed that Facebook users in developing countries — potential growth areas for the company — were using the platform for all sorts of illegal activity, including the trafficking of drugs and human beings. Facebook, according to the Journal’s reporting, was slow to respond even when it knew what was happening.
Haugen told similar tales. She also told Congress that Facebook has the ability to better regulate its product — to more effectively prevent the platform from being used to illegal activities, to identify underage users and present their content accordingly, and to prevent the spread of dangerous misinformation.
Facebook’s algorithm, Haugen said, organizes content based on engagement, which can lead to the most inflammatory and shocking posts getting preferential treatment and moving their way to the top of any given person’s feed. Essentially, the company makes decisions about what it wants you to see, and it keeps those decisions secret from the public, according to Haugen; changing the algorithm, she said, might impact the company’s earnings.
That’s dangerous — especially since violence can follow the kind of outrage that Facebook’s algorithm seems intended to favor. The world has already seen this in several countries. In Myanmar, the company admitted to failing to prevent its platform from inciting “offline violence” in 2018. In Ethiopia, critics blamed the social media company for allowing misinformation to spread during protests in the country in 2019. And in the United States, many of the insurrectionists who launched an attack at the Capitol on January 6 organized via Facebook.
The company denies wrongdoing in the Capitol riots: “The responsibility for the violence of Jan. 6 lies squarely with the people who inflicted the violence and those who encouraged them, including President Trump,” Facebook vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg told CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday.
Consistently, Haugen said, Facebook put “profits before people.”
A serious question about our weirded worldA serious question about our weirded world
Facebook, for its part, attempted to undermine Haugen’s credibility, saying in a statement that “Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question. We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”
Facebook is far from the only source of misinformation in the world — conservative media, and even members of the Republican Party in the US, certainly hold some of the blame. At Haugen’s own hearing, Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn asserted, without evidence, that 1.5 billion Facebook users had their data hacked and sold online.
Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene still holds a seat in Congress, despite being a font of conspiracy-mongering, from believing that 9/11 was an inside job to spreading outrageous conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook massacre of elementary schoolchildren and California’s wildfires. And Trump is perhaps the nation’s Chief Misinformation Officer — much of what worried critics are asking Facebook to regulate are conspiracy theories and lies that come from the former president’s fans, as well as the man himself.
That makes this moment a challenging one. Haugen’s testimony about Facebook’s dangers, and its refusal to adequately regulate itself, should be a call for Congress to act. But what will Congress do given that the Republican Party and its base have gone so off the rails that truth and reality, to borrow the words of comedian Stephen Colbert, now have a well-known liberal bias?
The good news is that Republicans and Democrats alike at least seem aligned on the narrow issue of children’s wellbeing, and say they are willing to take steps to protect minors who use social media — even if it’s not yet clear what those steps will be. But that’s just one piece of a vast problem. And while misinformation campaigns happen on the left and the right alike, the problem isn’t equal on both sides — a shocking number of Republican politicians are regular purveyors of dangerous lies, and many of them benefit from and enable their voters’ growing extremism and divorce from reality.
There needs to be much more oversight into how unaccountable and secretive companies like Facebook operate and invisibly shape all of our lives. But as American politicians are rightly figuring out how to rein in powerful tech giants, they should also look around the halls of power they occupy and realize that the lies and misinformation that are destroying the country aren’t just coming from Silicon Valley — they’re also coming from inside the House.
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