A former project manager for Facebook who leaked internal documents that revealed the social media giant was aware of its harm to young people asserted during a Senate hearing Tuesday that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has evaded accountability for the company’s failures to address its detrimental effects.
“The buck stops with Mark,” Frances Haugen said of Zuckerberg in testimony Tuesday. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
Testifying before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, Haugen blasted her former employer for serving to “deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”
“I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” she 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.”
Haugen has shared thousands of pages of internal documents, including research reports, employee discussions, and presentation drafts, with The Wall Street Journal. The papers appeared to show the company’s awareness of the ill effects of its services, how those flaws caused harm, and how Facebook fell short of repairing them. Some of those documents suggested that Facebook was aware of how Instagram played a role in depression and anxiety in many teenage girls. She also shared portions of those documents with lawmakers and has implored congressional action.
“A company with such frightening influence over so many people—over their deepest thoughts, feelings, and behavior—needs real oversight,” she said Tuesday.
Haugen joined the company in June 2019, and had worked on a team that countered civic misinformation; she left in May. She said she believes the documents she gathered show Facebook’s awareness of how harmful its products have been.
“Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook,” she said Tuesday. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world.”
Haugen filed a whistleblower complaint with the Securities & Exchange Commission that also asserted Facebook had misled investors with public statements that did not reflect its efforts internally.
On Tuesday in D.C., she singled out the billionaire CEO for his ineffectiveness and the dangerous repercussions of his decisions.
Haugen said that even when presented with “soft interventions,” Zuckerberg, who holds ultimate voting power over the direction of the company, had opted not to make changes that would help to curb hate speech and violence. According to Haugen, the company used engagement-based methods to rank content, a system that she said is “literally fanning ethnic violence” in conflict-ridden countries like Ethiopia.
Haugen also said that in the run-up to the 2020 election, Facebook had changed some of its safety defaults “because they knew they were dangerous.”
She suggested on Tuesday that after implementing safeguards ahead of November 2020, the company later returned to its original defaults under the guise of free speech but ultimately “because they wanted that growth back, they wanted the acceleration of the platform back after the election.”
Haugen said that changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that would allow Facebook and other social media networks to be sued for decisions about how content is ranked in user feeds could bolster accountability for their choices about algorithms.
Warning that it was in over its head, she said Facebook could “declare moral bankruptcy.”
“You can admit you did something wrong,” she said. “And we can move forward.”
In a CBS interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Haugen said she was increasingly concerned about her work at Facebook as she watched the company diminish public interest in favor of its own growth, describing Facebook as “substantially worse” than other social networks she had seen before. She has also worked at Google, Pinterest, and Yelp.
“Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety,” she said at the time.
Facebook has responded to the reports by arguing it is “not accurate” that the documents demonstrate Instagram’s toxicity to teen girls.
“It is not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” Facebook said in its statement. “The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced.”
Haugen’s testimony comes after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and other members of his committee drilled Facebook executive Antigone Davis about the documents last week.
Davis contended that the research was “not a bombshell,” and insisted that Facebook had made “numerous product changes” that stemmed from some of its research.
In an apparent effort to undermine Haugen’s testimony, a spokesman for Facebook, Andy Stone, wrote on Twitter that the ex-employee “did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook.”