New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Ex-Facebook manager criticizes company, urges more oversight


WASHINGTON — While accusing the giant social network of pursuing profits over safety, a former Facebook data scientist told Congress Tuesday she believes stricter government oversight could alleviate the dangers the company poses, from harming children to inciting political violence to fueling misinforma­tion.

Frances Haugen, testifying to the Senate Commerce Subcommitt­ee on Consumer Protection, presented a wide-ranging condemnati­on of Facebook. She accused the company of failing to make changes to Instagram after internal research showed apparent harm to some teens and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinforma­tion. Haugen’s accusation­s were buttressed by tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit.

She also offered ideas about how Facebook’s social media platforms could be made safer. Haugen laid responsibi­lity for the company’s profits-oversafety strategy right at the top, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but she also expressed empathy for Facebook’s dilemma.

Haugen, who says she joined the company in 2019 because “Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” said she didn’t leak internal documents to a newspaper and then come before Congress in order to destroy the company or call for its breakup, as many consumer advocates and lawmakers of both parties have called for.

Instead, Haugen is asking for tighter government regulation and stricter accountabi­lity.

Haugen is a 37-year-old data expert from Iowa with a degree in computer engineerin­g and a master’s degree in business from Harvard. Prior to being recruited by Facebook, she worked for 15 years at tech companies including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.

“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said. “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,” she said. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Democrats and Republican­s have shown a rare unity around the revelation­s of Facebook’s handling of potential risks to teens from Instagram, and bipartisan bills have proliferat­ed to address social media and data-privacy problems. But getting legislatio­n through Congress is a heavy slog. The Federal Trade Commission has taken a stricter stance toward Facebook and other tech giants in recent years.

“Whenever you have Republican­s and Democrats on the same page, you’re probably more likely to see something,” said Gautam Hans, a technology law and free-speech expert at Vanderbilt University. “Protecting children is something that many people agree with, and I think it’s easier to find consensus there.”

Haugen suggested, for example, that the minimum age for Facebook’s popular Instagram photo-sharing platform could be increased from the current 13 to 16 or 18.

She also acknowledg­ed the limitation­s of possible remedies. Facebook, like other social media companies, uses algorithms to rank and recommend content to users’ news feeds. When the ranking is based on engagement — likes, shares and comments — as it is now with Facebook, users can be vulnerable to manipulati­on and misinforma­tion. Haugen would prefer the ranking to be chronologi­cal. But, she testified, “People will choose the more addictive option even if it is leading their daughters to eating disorders.”

Haugen said a 2018 change to the content flow contribute­d to more divisivene­ss and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.

Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, she said Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back — a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate the vast majority of its revenue.

Haugen said she believed Facebook didn’t set out to build a destructiv­e platform. “I have a huge amount of empathy for Facebook,” she said. “These are really hard questions, and I think they feel a little trapped and isolated.”

But “in the end, the buck stops with Mark,” Haugen said, referring to Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50 percent of Facebook’s voting shares.

“There is no one currently holding Mark accountabl­e but himself.”

Haugen said she believed that Zuckerberg was familiar with some of the internal research showing concerns for potential negative impacts of Instagram.

The subcommitt­ee is examining Facebook’s use of informatio­n its own researcher­s compiled about Instagram. Those findings could indicate potential harm for some of its young users, especially girls, although Facebook publicly downplayed possible negative impacts. For some of the teens devoted to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research leaked by Haugen showed.

One internal study cited 13.5 percent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 percent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

 ?? Matt McClain / Associated Press ?? Former Facebook employee and whistleblo­wer Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transporta­tion hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Matt McClain / Associated Press Former Facebook employee and whistleblo­wer Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transporta­tion hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

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