Frances Haugen, who calls herself an "advocate for public oversight of social media," testified before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security on Oct. 5, 2021. In her testimony, Haugen alleged that her former employer—Facebook, Inc. (FB)—has a culture in which profits take precedence over the safety of users, including children.
Haugen asserted that Facebook has diverted resources away from safety measures and toward adjustments to its platform that can spur growth in traffic, unconcerned about the possible negative impacts on society, including the promotion of political divisiveness, causing damage to mental health, and even spurring violence.
"Facebook has not earned a right to just have blind trust in them," Haugen told the subcommittee. Additionally, Haugen charged the company with "moral bankruptcy" and being "stuck in a loop it can't get out of."
Key Points of Haugen's Testimony Before U.S. Senate Panel
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg controls all key decisions.
- Social responsibility takes a back seat to profits.
- The company seeks to addict children to its platforms.
- Breaking up Facebook will not solve these problems.
Who Is Frances Haugen?
Frances Haugen holds a degree in electrical and computer engineering from Olin College and an M.B.A. from Harvard. She worked at Facebook from June 2019 to May 2021, originally hired as a product manager in the company's Civic Integrity team that was charged with protecting against election interference but was dissolved in late 2020. Members of this team were reassigned to other parts of the company.
She previously worked at the Google division of Alphabet Inc. (GOOG, GOOGL), Pinterest Inc. (PINS), and other social networking companies. Her professional specialty has been the design of algorithms and other tools that determine what content gets served to which users.
Haugen Becomes Whistleblower
Haugen shared tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents with The Wall Street Journal that became the basis of its Facebook Files series, which explored how the company's platforms are rife with flaws that can cause harm to users and society at large. She also has aired her concerns with Facebook on the CBS News investigative program "60 Minutes" and filed whistleblower complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
In total, Haugen has filed at least eight whistleblower complaints with the SEC. They allege that, per a statement from her lawyers, "Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) has, for years past and ongoing, violated U.S. securities laws by making material misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors and prospective investors, including, inter alia, through filings with the SEC, testimony to Congress, online statements and media stories."
Highlights of Her Senate Testimony
Haugen asserted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is at the center of the profit-driven culture of his company and is the sole arbiter of all the most important decisions. "Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good, our common good," she told the Senate subcommittee.
While the hearing delved into a variety of issues related to Facebook, it devoted particular attention to the social media giant's effect on children. Facebook recently delayed the rollout of a planned "Instagram for Kids," possibly concerned about negative public relations repercussions in light of Haugen's critiques. Indeed, Haugen drew a parallel between this new platform and cigarettes, spurring several senators to comment that Facebook should be treated like Big Tobacco.
"Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users," Haugen said. "They have to make sure that that next generation is just as engaged on Instagram as the current one. And the way they'll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self-regulation," she added.
Breaking Up Facebook Is No Cure
Some lawmakers support a breakup of Facebook, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been pursuing an antitrust case that could have this ultimate effect. However, Haugen told the subcommittee that a breakup would not be a cure for all the problems created or abetted by Facebook. Instead, she indicated, the algorithms currently making bad decisions there would continue to do so on Instagram.
"If you split Facebook and Instagram apart, it's likely most of the advertising dollars go to Instagram, while Facebook continues to be this Frankenstein," with insufficient resources to address problematic content, she said. The "systems will still exist," she added.