A former Facebook employee told members of Congress on Tuesday that the company knew its platform was spreading misinformation and content that was harmful to children, but refused to make changes that could hurt its bottom line.
Speaking to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen told lawmakers that new regulations are needed to force Facebook to improve its own platforms. But she stopped before calling for the company’s disbandment, saying it wouldn’t solve existing problems and instead turn Facebook into a “Frankenstein” that continues to wreak havoc around the world while a Separate Instagram rakes in most of the advertising dollars.
Efforts to pass new social media regulations have failed in the past, but senators said Tuesday that new revelations on Facebook show the time for inaction is over.
Here are some highlights from Tuesday’s hearing.
FACEBOOK KNOWS IT HURTS VULNERABLE PEOPLE
Haugen said Facebook knows vulnerable people are harmed by its systems, from children who may feel bad about their bodies because of Instagram, to adults who are more exposed to misinformation after being widowed, divorced, or suffering harms. ‘other forms of isolation such as moving to a new city.
The platform is designed to harness negative emotions to keep people on the platform, she said.
“They are aware of the side effects of the choices they have made around amplification. They know that algorithm-based rankings or engagement-based rankings keep you on their sites longer. You have longer sessions, you show up more often, and it earns them more money.
THE WHISTLEBLOWER HAS TOUCHED A NERVE
During the hearing, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, the committee’s rank Republican, said she had just received a text from Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone, noting that Haugen had not worked on safety or Instagram nor researched these issues and had no direct knowledge of the subject matter of his work on Facebook.
Haugen herself has made it clear on several occasions that she does not work directly on these issues but based her testimony on the documents she had and on her own experience.
But Facebook’s statement underscored its limited role and relatively short tenure at the company, effectively calling into question its expertise and credibility. It was not for everyone.
Facebook’s tactic “shows they don’t have a good answer to all these issues they’re attacking it on,” said Gautam Hans, tech law and free speech expert at Vanderbilt University .
SMALL CHANGES COULD MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE
Making changes to reduce the spread of disinformation and other harmful content wouldn’t require a complete reinvention of social media, Haugen said. One of the simpler changes might be to just organize posts in chronological order instead of letting computers predict what people want to see based on the engagement – good or bad – it might attract.
Another was to add an extra click before users could easily share content, which she said can significantly reduce misinformation and hate speech.
“A lot of the changes I’m talking about won’t make Facebook an unprofitable business, it just won’t be a ridiculously profitable business like it is today,” she said.
She said Facebook wouldn’t make these changes on its own if it could stop the growth, even though the company’s own research showed people use the platform less when exposed to more content. toxic.
“You would think that a nicer, friendlier, more collaborative Facebook might actually have more users in five years, so it’s in everyone’s best interest,” she said.
A GLANCE INSIDE THE COMPANY
Haugen described Facebook’s corporate environment as so machine-like and metric-driven that it was difficult to curb the known damage which, if corrected, could hurt growth and profits.
She described the company’s famous “flat” organizational philosophy – with few levels of management and an open-plan workplace at its California headquarters that has almost all the staff in one huge room – as a barrier to leadership. necessary to unplug on bad ideas.
She said the company has no plans to create a destructive platform, but noted that CEO Mark Zuckerberg wields considerable power as he controls more than 50% of the voting shares of the company. and that letting metrics guide decisions was itself a decision about His role.
“Ultimately, the responsibility ends with Mark,” she said.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee said Tuesday’s hearing showed the need for new regulations that would change the way Facebook targets users and amplifies content. Such efforts have long failed in Washington, but several senators have said Haugen’s testimony could be the catalyst for change.
“Our differences are very minor, or they seem very minor in the face of the revelations we have now seen, so hopefully we can move forward,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chair of the panel. . .
Still, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota acknowledged that Facebook and other tech companies hold a lot of power in the nation’s capital, power that has blocked reforms in the past.
“There are lobbyists on every corner of this building who have been hired by the tech industry,” Klobuchar said. “Facebook and the other tech companies are throwing a lot of money in this city and people are listening to them.”
AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.