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‘Betrayal of Democracy, profits over public safety'; Facebook whistleblower lambasts company

CNBCTV18 logo CNBCTV18 04-10-2021 Shoma Bhattacharjee
Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of a stage © Provided by CNBCTV18

Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, who was roped in to prevent election interference, revealed her identity as the whistleblower behind Facebook’s internal research documents. Over the last few weeks, The Wall Street Journal managed to unearth and publish a trove of internal Facebook research documents that highlighted the negative effects of the app.

The published documents led to a new wave of criticism against the social media giant and even launched a US Senate hearing against the company on the matter. On October 3, the whistleblower behind the leak of the documents revealed herself in a CBS interview, ahead of testifying before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection on October 5.

What she revealed

Haugen, who previously worked at Pinterest, Yelp and Google as a product manager and was a technical co-founder behind the dating app Hinge, said she “became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritising their own profits over public safety and putting people's lives at risk,” on her website.

Haugen decided to reveal the company’s internal research document public to highlight the real dangers that the platform poses, leaking over 10,000 documents in the process.

“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” Haugen told CBS in an interview.

Haugen highlighted that Facebook’s algorithm promotes misinformation to users. Due to the way that the social media platform is set up, users often tend to get fed misinformation that they would likely believe in and share further. Haugen said the company had recognised that threat. In anticipation of the swarm of misinformation that was expected to be released ahead of the highly divisive 2020 election and the election cycle, the company hired Haugen to be a part of the Civic Integrity Team, to deal with such information.

But the turning point came as soon as the election was over, and the Civic Integrity Team was dissolved and its work partitioned to other teams. The safety measures to stop the spread of misinformation were also disabled so that the company could focus on growth instead.

“When they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I was like, ‘I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous’.” Haugen told 60 Minutes.

Soon afterwards, Facebook played a role in spreading misinformation and rabble-rousing the people who would go on to storm the US Capitol in the January 6 attacks in support of defeated President Donald J Trump.

“As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off or they changed the settings back to what they were before, to prioritise growth over safety,” Haugen said. “And that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me.”

Haugen, in another interview with The Wall Street Journal, added that Facebook also did very little to stop the problem of human exploitation on its platform. Facebook’s teams to deal with such issues on the platform are often understaffed or underfunded.

“Facebook acted like it was powerless to staff these teams,” she told the Journal.

Facebook’s pile of troubles

Haugen revealed internal research documents which highlighted that Facebook and Instagram, a photo-sharing social media platform that it owns, knew the effects it had on the mental health of teenage girls. But despite knowing that using the platform led to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among its users, the platform did very little to combat such effects or even highlight the risks that it posed to vulnerable children.

The company was also planning to entice pre-teen users in order to capitalise on a hitherto untapped market of consumers that would be turning to the wider Facebook and Instagram ecosystem as they grew older.

The leaked documents have prompted an official US Senate hearing over Facebook’s effect on children.

At the same time, the company has only paused the release of its Instagram for kids app, highlighting that a tailored experience for children on the platform is the perfect solution to many of the troubling questions that arise.

Facebook has been facing increased regulatory pressure around the globe, as governments tighten the reins on large social media platforms as well as the practices of tech giants like Facebook. The company in recent years has been facing increasing criticism for being a cesspool of misinformation and hate speech that often leads to violence. One of the glaring examples of such an effect was the outburst of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the often continuing hate speech against Rohingya refugees.

Haugen, for her part, believes that more regulations can help keep the company in check.

“Facebook has demonstrated they cannot act independently… Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety,” Haugen told 60 Minutes. “It is subsidising, it is paying for its profits with our safety. I’m hoping that this will have had a big enough impact on the world that they get the fortitude and the motivation to actually go put those regulations into place. That’s my hope.”

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