October 05, 2021
‘The core of the issue is that no one can understand Facebook’s destructive choices better than Facebook’
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2021. PHOTO BY REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN
WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers pounded Facebook on Tuesday, accusing CEO Mark Zuckerberg of pushing for
higher profits while being cavalier about user safety and they demanded regulators investigate whistleblower accusations that the social media company harms children and stokes divisions.
Coming a day after Facebook and its units including Instagram suffered a major outage, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in a congressional hearing that “for more than five hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”
In an era when bipartisanship is rare on Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties excoriated the nearly $1 trillion company in a hearing that exemplified the rising anger in Congress with Facebook amid numerous demands for legislative reforms.
As lawmakers criticized Facebook and Zuckerberg, the company’s spokespeople fought back on Twitter, arguing Haugen did not work directly on some of the issues she was being questioned on.
Senate Commerce subcommittee chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Facebook knew that its products were addictive, like cigarettes. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jawdropping moment of truth,” he said.
He called for Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company.
“Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror,” Blumenthal said, adding that Zuckerberg instead was going sailing.
Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team who has turned whistleblower, said Facebook has sought to keep its operations confidential.
“Today, no regulator has a menu of solutions for how to fix Facebook, because Facebook didn’t want them to know enough about what’s causing the problems. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been need for a whistleblower,” she said.
The top Republican on the subcommittee, Marsha Blackburn, said that Facebook turned a blind eye to children below age 13 on its sites. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users.”
Senator Roger Wicker, another Republican, agreed. “Children of America are hooked on their product. There is cynical knowledge on behalf of these Big Tech companies that this is true,” he said.
Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in an email ahead of the hearing that the company sees protecting its community as more important than maximizing profits and said it was not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrated that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage girls.
Haugen revealed she was the one who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram’s harm to teenage girls.
Last week, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, defended the company and said that it was seeking to release additional internal studies in an effort to be more transparent about its findings.
Facebook has pushed back on some of Haugen’s allegations and disputes that the research she shared from Instagram shows that the app is toxic to teens. Facebook has argued that while some teens say the app makes mental health issues worse, many others say the app makes those same issues better, and that the company is doing the right thing by researching these issues.
Facebook has pointed to its investment in safety and security as proof the company cares about many of its largest issues, like misinformation and fighting hate speech. The company says it has 40,000 employees working on safety and security teams, and claims it has spent more than $13 billion on safety and security efforts since 2016.
Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Commerce Committee, said she would write a letter to Facebook to insist that it not delete documents related to Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya. An aide said she would ask for broader retention of documents.
Haugen said Facebook had also done too little to prevent its site from being used by people planning violence.
Facebook was used by people planning mass killings in Myanmar and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who were determined to toss out the 2020 election results.
Senator Edward Markey, speaking to the absent Zuckerberg, said during the hearing: “Your time of invading our privacy, and preying on children is over. Congress will be taking action.”
Throughout the hearing lawmakers lambasted Zuckerberg, who they said was going sailing rather than facing his responsibilities. The CEO this weekend posted a video taken with the company’s new smart glasses of his wife in a boat.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Elizabeth Culliford, David Shepardson and Sheila Dang; Editing by Mark Porter and Grant McCool)
With files from Bloomberg