Facebook whistleblower calls on Congress to rein in company over targeting of children

Anger over the alleged actions brings Democrats, Republicans together

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, told senators "no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except for Facebook." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, told senators "no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except for Facebook." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 5, 2021 at 2:09pm

Senators struck a determined and bipartisan tone Tuesday in response to a Facebook whistleblower who urged Congress to slap new standards on the social media giant following bombshell revelations that the company knows its products harm young users.

The whistleblower, a former product manager at the company named Frances Haugen, told the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee that Facebook repeatedly prioritized profits over user safety as it pressed forward with a version of Instagram, which it owns, for children under 13 — despite internal research showing harm to teenage users.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they’ve put their astronomical profits before people,” Haugen said. “Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Haugen described in detail her claims that algorithms used by Facebook and Instagram can amplify harmful content, like posts encouraging girls not to eat, based on comparatively harmless interests.

“Facebook knows that its amplification algorithms, things like engagement-based ranking on Instagram, can lead children from very innocuous topics like healthy recipes … to anorexia over a very short period of time,” she said.

In the ongoing era of bitter partisanship, anger over the alleged actions of social media companies brought some Democrats and Republicans together.

“They know they’re guilty,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Commerce Committee subpanel. “Their research tells them this.”

'Profit was more important'

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the subcommittee chairman, said the company has demonstrated that “their profit was more important than the pain they caused.”

“The damage to self-image and self-worth inflicted by Facebook will haunt a generation. Feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, rejection and self-hatred will impact this generation for years to come,” he said. “Our children are the ones who are victims.”

He continued: “If Facebook simply pays lip service and won’t act, and if Big Tech won’t act, Congress has to intervene.”

Haugen, who first shared internal company documents with The Wall Street Journal before revealing herself in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, encouraged lawmakers to enhance online privacy protections and overhaul a 1996 law known as Section 230 that protects Facebook from most lawsuits related to third-party content on its platforms.

But she noted Facebook has also endorsed such changes, and urged lawmakers to get creative in order to force the company to disclose its algorithms for oversight by the government and independent and academic researchers.

“The severity of this crisis demands we have to break out of our previous regulatory frames. Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 will alone be sufficient,” she said, referring to legal safeguards for tech companies that prevent them from being held legally responsible for the content they allow on their sites.

“While important, these will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except for Facebook,” the whistleblower said. “We can afford nothing less than full transparency.”

Last week, the company released a heavily redacted version of its research before Antigone Davis, its director of global safety, testified that the company did not seek to suppress its internal research. But she did not say whether it would release an unredacted version of its findings.

Several senators criticized CEO Mark Zuckerberg for failing to comment publicly on Haugen’s disclosures in recent weeks, and for posting a video before the 60 Minutes broadcast that showed him and his wife sailing. Neither Zuckerberg nor Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, has commented on the scandal, with lower officials like Davis taking much of the heat.

In a statement, Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy communications, sought to discredit Haugen’s testimony.

“[Haugen] worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives – and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question,” Pietsch said, adding the company does not “agree with [Haugen’s] characterizing of the many issues she testified about.”

The Facebook spokeswoman also reiterated the firm’s support for updated internet policy guidelines: “It’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”

'She'll never be the same'

Lawmakers have introduced numerous proposals to rein in Facebook. Blumenthal and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., are co-sponsoring legislation that would ban online practices like manipulative marketing and algorithmic amplification aimed at children.

Markey and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., are the backers of legislation that would update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA, to account for new business ventures such as a version of Instagram for children. The bill would extend the law’s protections, which currently apply to children under 12, to those ages 12 to 16.

Another bill, by Markey and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., would require the National Institutes of Health to fund research on how social media affects the cognitive, physical, social and emotional development of children.

Even if Congress acts, however, Haugen said lawmakers and regulators should hesitate before resting on their laurels because Facebook will not stop trying to capitalize on the next generation of young users.

“I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram for kids and I would be amazed if, a year from now, we don’t have this conversation again,” she said. “Facebook knows that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users, they have to make sure the next generation is just as engaged with Instagram as the current one.”

The key to doing so, Haugen said, is “making sure children establish habits before they have good self-regulation.”

She continued: “It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have good self-regulation. They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram and yet I can’t stop.’ We need to protect the kids.”

Toward the hearing’s conclusion, Blumenthal grew teary-eyed as he read aloud a text from a father in Connecticut who said he was watching the hearing live.

“My 15-year-old daughter loved her body at 14, was on Instagram constantly, maybe posting too much,” the father texted, according to Blumenthal. “Suddenly, she started hating her body. Body dysmorphia, now anorexia, and was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear she’ll never be the same. I’m brokenhearted.”