Tue. Oct 26th, 2021

A former Facebook employee testified before Congress saying the social media platform knows it spreads misinformation and content that harms children but refuses to make changes that could hurt its profits.

(Photo Courtesy: The New York Times)

Speaking before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen told lawmakers that new regulations are needed to force Facebook to improve its own platforms. But she stopped short of calling for a breakup of the company, saying it wouldn’t fix existing problems and would instead turn Facebook into a “Frankenstein” that continues to cause harm around the world while a separate Instagram rakes in most advertising dollars.

Efforts to pass new regulations on social media have failed in the past, but senators said Tuesday that new revelations about Facebook show the time for inaction has ended.

Haugen said Facebook knows that vulnerable people are harmed by its systems, from kids who are susceptible to feel bad about their bodies because of Instagram to adults who are more exposed to misinformation after being widowed, divorced or experiencing other forms of isolation such as moving to a new city.

“They are aware of the side effects of the choices they have made around amplification. They know that algorithmic-based rankings, or engagement-based rankings, keeps you on their sites longer. You have longer sessions, you show up more often, and that makes them more money.”

During the hearing, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the committee’s ranking Republican, said she’d just received a text from Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone pointing out that Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge on the topic from her work at Facebook.

Haugen herself made it clear several times that she did not directly work on these issues but based her testimony on the documents she had and her own experience.

But Facebook’s statement emphasized her limited role and relatively short tenure at the company, effectively questioning her expertise and credibility. That didn’t sit well with everyone.

Facebook’s tactic “demonstrates that they don’t have a good answer to all these problems that they’re attacking her on,” said Gautam Hans, a technology law and free speech expert at Vanderbilt University.

“A lot of the changes that I’m talking about are not going to make Facebook an unprofitable company, it just won’t be a ludicrously profitable company like it is today,” Haugen said.

She said Facebook won’t make those changes on its own if it might halt growth, even though the company’s own research showed that people use the platform less when they’re exposed to more toxic content.

“One could reason a kinder, friendlier, more collaborative Facebook might actually have more users five years from now, so it’s in everyone’s interest,” she said.

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