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Whistleblower tells Congress that Facebook products harm kids and democracy

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee after leaking internal research showing the company knew about Instagram's negative impact on some teens. She says that Facebook consistently chooses profit over safety.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee after leaking internal research showing the company knew about Instagram's negative impact on some teens. She says that Facebook consistently chooses profit over safety.

Updated October 5, 2021 at 12:09 PM ET

A former Facebook product manager told Congress on Tuesday that the company's products harm children and stoke division, while Facebook executives hide research about the social network's risks to keep its business humming.

Frances Haugen, speaking to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, said Facebook needs to be subject to the same kind of government regulation that covers Big Tobacco, automobiles and opioids as public safety concerns.

"I implore you to do the same here," Haugen told senators.

She said the company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but refuses to "because they have put their astronomical profits before people."

"Congressional action is needed. They won't solve this crisis without your help," she said.

She was met with bipartisan praise from senators who pledged to work together on privacy reforms. Democrats and Republicans also appeared united in considering that Facebook had acted without restraint for far too long.

"These documents that you have revealed provided this company with a blueprint for reform, specific recommendations that could have made Facebook and Instagram safe," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the subcommittee chair.

The internal research Haugen shared with the press, members of Congress and federal regulators has plunged Facebook into its biggest crisis in years. She leaked a trove of internal research and communications showing the company was aware of the ills of its platforms, including the toxic risks of Instagram to some teenage girls' mental health and the prevalence of drug cartels and human traffickers on its apps. That information formed the basis of a blockbuster investigative series by The Wall Street Journal and have fueled anger and investigations in Washington.

Facebook internal research provided by Haugen found that 13.5% of teen girls said Instagram worsens suicidal thoughts and 17% of teen girls say that Instagram contributes to their eating disorders.

Amid the controversy over Instagram's research, Facebook announced it is pausing the development of a version of Instagram for users 13 years old and younger.

Haugen pleads for government oversight and investigations of Facebook

On Sunday, Haugen gave a damning interview to CBS' 60 Minutes, in which she accused Facebook of lying to the public and its own investors about the impacts of its platforms.

Her lawyer says she has filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging Facebook misled its shareholders with its public statements about problems including the prevalence of hate speech, how the social network was used leading up to and during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and how its algorithms amplify misinformation.

Haugen spent two years at Facebook working on a team combating political misinformation. She said she grew disillusioned with the company's failing to make its platforms safer if those changes risked its growth.

"As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good," Haugen testified on Tuesday.

Facebook disputes Haugen's accusations. It says the reporting on its internal research has mischaracterized its work.

On Monday, Neil Potts, Facebook's vice president of trust and safety policy, told NPR's All Things Considered that he "would categorically deny" Haugen's claim that Facebook profits from promoting polarizing and emotionally inflammatory content.

"I think that accusation is just a bit unfounded," Potts said. "At Facebook, what we are designing our products to do is to increase meaningful experiences, so whether those are meaningful social interactions ... or having just positive social experience on a platform, that is what we want the product ultimately to provide. That makes an environment where people will come to Facebook, where they will come to Instagram, and have a better time, and that's really our bottom line."

But Haugen's claims and the extensive set of documents she copied before leaving Facebook have caught the attention of the public — and of powerful critics in Washington.

Last week, the same Senate panel grilled a Facebook official about what the whistleblowing revealed. They accused the company of hiding what it knew about how its products can hurt people, particularly children.

On Tuesday, Blumenthal said Haugen's disclosures to Congress revealed that Facebook targeted teens and preteens through Instagram in order to drive up numbers for advertisers and boost profits for shareholders.

"Facebook exploited teens using powerful algorithms that amplify their insecurities," Blumenthal said. "Their profit was more important than the pain they caused."

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.