Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen urged Congress to pass legislation ensuring platform transparency and reforming algorithms that promote harmful content during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on children’s online safety Tuesday.
In her prepared statements, Haugen compared Facebook to a big tobacco company, alleging the company knows its products are harmful and doesn’t care, and implored Congress to take action.
“A company with control over our deepest thoughts, feelings and behaviors needs real oversight,” Haugen said.
Haugen, who leaked thousands of internal documents to The Wall Street Journal published last month, worked as a product manager on Facebook’s Civic Misinformation team, where she was responsible for overseeing policies to address misinformation and hateful content. The documents she leaked showed that Facebook was aware its algorithms promoted content that had a harmful effect on teen users, as well as divisive and inflammatory content, and had not taken the steps Haugen felt were necessary to address its problems.
“Facebook knows that content that elicits a strong reaction from you is more likely to get likes, comments, and reshares,” Haugen said. “They also know it’s dangerous.”
When asked by lawmakers what her proposed solutions were, Haugen advocated for reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to exempt content boosted by algorithms, effectively holding Facebook liable for extreme or dangerous content it promotes. She also called for a dedicated oversight body where former Facebook employees could do a “tour of duty.”
“Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety,” Haugen said. “They’re paying for their profits right now with our safety.”
Perhaps most significantly, Haugen advocated for the removal of “amplification” algorithms, pushing for a more “human-controlled” social media instead. She warned of the effects of “engagement-based ranking systems” that were shown to promote harmful content to teen users, fan the flames of global ethnic conflicts, as well as political polarization within the U.S.
“Mark [Zuckerberg] has built an organization that is very metrics-driven. It is intended to be flat. There is no unilateral responsibility,” Haugen said. “The metrics make the decision.”
Haugen attributed much of Facebook’s harms to the way it promotes and selects for harmful content, arguing that much of the problem could be solved by eliminating algorithms that promote content based on user engagement.
Haugen also pushed to open Facebook up to researchers, offer model legislation to Congress, and implement “soft interventions” that were in place during the 2020 election, such as forcing users to click on links before they share it.
Several lawmakers suggested legislation they had proposed as potential solutions to the issues Haugen raised. Sen. Ed Markey brought up a bill he sponsored called the KIDS Act, which prevents social media platforms from engaging in certain business practices that target children.
Sen. John Thune argued his PACT Act, which implements transparency requirements and reforms Section 230 to allow consumers to sue social media platforms for illegal content, would help parents protect their children online.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar pushed for stronger moderation of misinformation, referencing a bill she proposed that would hold tech companies liable for misinformation.
Haugen, who said she joined Facebook because “someone close” to her was “radicalized online” and felt the need to work to create a “less toxic Facebook,” previously said the social media giant was engaged in a “betrayal of our democracy” after it failed to adequately respond in her eyes to “misinformation” and extremist content preceding the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more,” Haugen said while calling for more oversight of Facebook’s content moderation decisions. “Facebook wants users to believe that in order to share fun photos of your kids with old friends, you must also be inundated with misinformation.”
In addition to her testimony, Haugen filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Facebook misled its investors by misstating the amount of hate speech and disinformation it removed. The complaints allege Facebook leadership elected to ignore the “harms” of certain content.
Haugen also placed some degree of blame for the Capitol riot on Facebook’s inadequate moderation of content, calling it a “betrayal of democracy.”
Facebook responded to Haugen’s testimony in a statement questioning her experience and knowledge of the documents she leaked.
“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,” Lena Pietsch, director of Policy Communications, said in a statement posted to Twitter.
Several lawmakers and technology experts worry Haugen’s calls for stricter content moderation in the name of removing hate and misinformation may threaten political speech.
Both Sens. Ted Cruz and Cynthia Lummis raised the issue of political censorship during the hearing, asking Haugen on how best to strike a balance between mitigating Facebook’s harms while protecting speech. Haugen attempted to reassure the Republicans, saying she advocates for “soft interventions” that don’t target specific content but rather affect the way in which content is shared.
“When you encourage censorship, it’ll always be to the detriment of conservative thought,” Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan tweeted Monday. “That’s why I can’t help but think that this entire Facebook whistleblower story is nothing more than a set up by the left to help justify more censorship.”
“I’m pretty skeptical of what the media believe are the key takeaways here,” Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, told the DCNF. “It is almost as if some outlets, and Ms. Haugen herself, are asking Facebook to censor more, particularly those expressing conservative values.”
Haugen is herself a Democratic supporter, having made several dozen donations to Democratic candidates over the past few years, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Haugen is also reportedly working with former Obama administration official and Democratic consultant Bill Burton, The Washington Free Beacon reported Monday, who is advising her on her press communications strategy.
Others worry that lawmakers may see Haugen’s leaks as an opportunity to exert control over Facebook for their political ends.
“The problem is that this Congressional effort isn’t about helping people by putting them in control of their data and providing them digital rights,” John Robb, author and technology researcher who testified before the Senate on Big Tech’s data policies in September, told the DCNF. “It’s about getting Congress and other groups more control over how Facebook is used to control our society.”
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