Facebook whistleblower says social media company's products hurt children and fuel division

A former Facebook data scientist told Congress that the social network’s products harm children and fuel polarization in the US, and its bosses are refusing to make changes because they prefer profits to safety.

Frances Haugen testified before the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee on Commerce after alleging the company was aware of the apparent harm done to some teenagers by Instagram and was dishonest in its public battle against hatred and misinformation.

Ms. Haugen has widely condemned Facebook, with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before quitting her job in the company’s civil integrity department.

She has also filed complaints with federal agencies alleging that Facebook’s own research shows it exacerbates hatred, misinformation and political unrest, but the company is hiding what it knows.

Ms. Haugen says she speaks out of her conviction that “Facebook products harm children, stir up divisions and weaken our democracy”.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram more secure, but will not make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits in front of the people,” she said in a written evidence prepared for the hearing.

“Congress measures are required. You will not solve this crisis without your help. ”

After recent reports based on documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal sparked public outcry, Ms. Haugen revealed her identity in a television interview that aired Sunday night. She said, “Facebook has shown time and time again that it chooses profit over security.”

The former employee who challenges the social network of 2.8 billion users worldwide and a market value of nearly $ 1 trillion, is a 37-year-old data professional with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s in business administration from Harvard.

Before joining Facebook in 2019, she worked for 15 years at tech companies like Google, Pinterest, and Yelp.

The panel examines how Facebook is using information from its own researchers on Instagram that may indicate potential harm to some of its young users, especially girls, while it has publicly downplayed the negative effects.

For some teens, peer pressure generated by Instagram has led to mental health and body image issues, as well as eating disorders and suicidal thoughts in some cases, research leaked by Ms. Haugen showed.

“The company is deliberately hiding important information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world,” Ms. Haugen said in her written testimony.

“The documents I provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about its own research on child safety, the effectiveness of its artificial intelligence systems, and its role in spreading divisive factors and extreme messages. ”

When the PR controversy over Instagram research grew last week, Facebook put its work on a children’s version of Instagram on hold. It’s about algorithms that control what appears in users’ newsfeeds and how they prefer hateful content.

Ms. Haugen, who focused on algorithm products in her work at Facebook, said a change in content flow in 2018 contributed to more division and malevolence.

Despite the hostility the new algorithms fueled, Facebook found that they were helping people keep coming back – a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate most of its revenue .

Ms. Haugen also says Facebook prematurely disabled safeguards to prevent misinformation and incitement to violence following Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump last year, alleging that this contributed to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have.

After the November elections, Facebook disbanded the civic integrity unit that Ms. Haugen had worked for, and she says that was when she realized, “I don’t think they are actually ready to invest this what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous ”.

Facebook considers their claims to be misleading and insists that there is no evidence to suggest that this is the main cause of the social polarization.

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