WASHINGTON — A former Facebook data scientist told Congress on Tuesday that the social network giant’s products harm children and fuel polarization in the US, adding that its executives refuse to change because they elevate profits over safety. And she said responsibility for that lies right at the top, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Frances Haugen, testifying to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, also offered thoughtful ideas about how Facebook’s social media platforms could be made safer. Though she was sharply critical of the company, she saw the possibility of constructive action and expressed some empathy for Facebook’s dilemma.
Haugen, for example, suggested that the minimum age for Facebook’s popular Instagram photo-sharing platform could be increased from the current 13 to 16 or 18.
Speaking confidently at a charged hearing, Haugen accused the company of being aware of apparent harm to some teens from Instagram and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.
“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.”
Haugen said that while the company openly acknowledged that integrity controls were critical for internal systems that stoke the engagement of users, it failed to fully deploy some of those tools.
In dialogue with receptive senators of both parties, Haugen, who focused on algorithm products in her work at Facebook, explained the importance to the company of algorithms that govern what shows up on users’ news feeds. She 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.
“It has profited off spreading misinformation and disinformation and sowing hate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the panel’s chairman. “Facebook’s answers to Facebook’s destructive impact always seems to be more Facebook, we need more Facebook — which means more pain, and more money for Facebook.”
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% 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 government needs to step in with stricter oversight of the company, Haugen said.
Like fellow tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple, Facebook has enjoyed minimal regulation. A number of bipartisan legislative proposals for the tech industry address data privacy, protection of young people and anti-competitive conduct. But getting new laws through a divided Congress is a heavy slog. The Federal Trade Commission has adopted a stricter stance recently toward Facebook and other companies.