Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook for two years before leaving in May, claimed that the company is aware of how its platforms are used to spread misinformation, hate and violence.
For around six hours on Monday, billions of users around the world were unable to access their accounts on Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, and its family of apps, Instagram and WhatsApp. According to the company, the global outage was caused by an internal technical issue. But this wasn’t the biggest crisis to hit the social media giant this week.
The worldwide outage came at a time when the company is grappling with the aftermath of a scathing series of reports by the Wall Street Journal based on a trove of internal documents provided by a whistleblower.
On Sunday, in an episode of CBS’ ‘60 Minutes’, the whistleblower revealed her identity. Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook for two years before leaving in May, claimed that the company is aware of how its platforms are used to spread misinformation, hate and violence.
Crisis deepened for the social media network after Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday, accusing Facebook of harming children, and weakening democracy.
Haugen’s revelations are particularly significant as Facebook has been under the scanner in recent years for not doing enough to prevent hate speech online and to protect the data of its vast user base.
So, who is Frances Haugen?
Haugen worked at Facebook for nearly two years as a product manager in the company’s civic integrity team. Her job was largely focussed on tracking the spread of misinformation on the platform and ensuring that the platform was not used to destabilise democracy.
Before working at Facebook, the 37-year-old engineer had a successful tech career, working as a product manager at several top tech firms, including Google, Pinterest and Yelp. While pursuing a management programme at Harvard Business School in 2010, she co-founded a dating platform called Secret Agent Cupid, which later became popular dating app ‘Hinge’, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Haugen has said that her passion for combating misinformation on social media traces back to 2014, when she saw a family friend become obsessed with online forums touting white nationalist conspiracy theories. “It’s one thing to study misinformation, it’s another to lose someone to it,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “A lot of people who work on these products only see the positive side of things.”
So, when a Facebook recruiter approached her in 2018, Haugen insisted that she wanted a job related to democracy and the spread of false information. In 2019, she joined the company’s civic integrity team, which looked at election interference worldwide. The team, however, was disbanded soon after the US presidential elections in 2020.
What did Haugen do?
In her ’60 Minutes’ interview, Haugen said she began to lose faith in Facebook soon after the team was disbanded. The work previously done by the civic integrity team was then divided between a number of different departments, Facebook later said. But the company was not doing enough to prevent misinformation, she contended.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she said during the interview. “And Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests like making more money.”
She accused the social media platform of lying about the amount of progress it has made in combating hate speech online. Haugen went as far as claiming that Facebook was used to plan the Capitol riot on January 6, after the company chose to turn off safety systems following the US presidential elections.
In September, Haugen filed around eight complaints with the US’ Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that Facebook was not disclosing research about its shortcomings from investors and the public, CNN reported. She also leaked tens of thousands of internal company documents to the Wall Street Journal, which then published a series of reports that showed Facebook was aware of the negative effects of misinformation and the harm that it causes, particularly to teenage girls, but was doing little to stop it.
But her goal is not to get people to hate Facebook. “I don’t hate Facebook. I love Facebook. I want to save it,” she wrote in her final message on Facebook’s internal system, right before she left the company.
A report by the Journal on how Facebook’s own research shows that Instagram hurts teen girls led to a Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee hearing last week.
How did Facebook respond?
In a statement soon after the ’60 Minutes’ episode, Facebook spokesperson Lena Pietsch denied the allegations and said that the company was making significant improvements “to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content”.
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“Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place,” Pietsch told CNN. “To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
In a 700-word statement, Pietsch said several facts were left out of the statement, adding that the interview “used select company materials to tell a misleading story about the research we do to improve our products.”
What did Frances Haugen say during her testimony on Capitol Hill?
Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, Haugen alleged that Facebook suffered from “moral bankruptcy” and is “stuck in a loop it can’t get out of.” She said that Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” The platforms’ algorithm focussed on rankings and ensuring longer sessions, which eventually makes them more money. To do this, Facebook often amplified negative emotions, such as anger, Haugen claimed.
But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied this allegation. “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” he said in a letter released after Haugen’s testimony. “We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content.”
Haugen also said that the company had a tendency to under-staff several of its teams, which adversely impacts its ability to respond to harmful content. She argued that Facebook required more regulation, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers seemed to agree. They said there was a need for action to be taken to stop the harm caused to teenagers on Facebook.
Some senators discussed the bills they have proposed that would add safety provisions for young users. Haugen even suggested raising the minimum age to join social media platforms to 17-years-old from 13-years-old.
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