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.
But she also offered thoughtful ideas about how Facebook’s social media platforms could be made safer. Haugen laid responsibility for the company’s profits-over-safety 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.
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.”
In a note to Facebook employees Tuesday, Zuckerberg disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users, or that pushes divisive content.
“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” Zuckerberg wrote.
He did, however, appear to agree with Haugen on the need for updated internet regulations, saying that would relieve private companies from having to make decisions on social issues on their own.
“We’re committed to doing the best work we can, but at some level the right body to assess tradeoffs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress,” Zuckerberg wrote.
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.