A former Facebook employee told members of Congress on Tuesday that the company is aware that its platform spreads misinformation and content that harms children, but refuses to make changes that could hurt its profits.
Speaking before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen told lawmakers that new rules are needed to force Facebook to improve its platform. But he stopped calling for the company to be broken up, saying it wouldn’t fix the current problems and would instead turn Facebook into a “Frankenstein” that is causing damage around the world, while making most of the advertising dollars. Rakes a different Instagram.
Efforts to pass new rules on social media have failed in the past, but senators said Tuesday that new revelations about Facebook suggest the time for inaction is over.
Here are some highlights from Tuesday’s hearing.
Facebook knows it’s hurting vulnerable people
Haugen said Facebook knows vulnerable people are harmed by its system, from children who are more susceptible to feeling bad about their bodies because of Instagram, to those who are widowed, divorced, or other forms of separation. exposed to false information after experiencing a new city.
The platform is designed to exploit negative sentiments to keep people on the platform, she said.
“They are aware of the ill effects of choices made around amplification. They know that algorithmic-based ranking, or engagement-based ranking, keeps you on their sites longer. The longer sessions you have, the more often you show up. and that makes them more money.”
Whistleblower touched a nerve
During the hearing, Republican Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, ranking the committee, said she had just received a text from Facebook spokeswoman Andy Stone stating that Haughan did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues. Didn’t and they have no direct knowledge on it. The subject of her work on Facebook.
Haugen himself clarified several times that he did not act directly on these issues, but gave his testimony based on the documents he had and his own experience.
But Facebook’s statement emphasized his limited role and relatively short tenure at the company, effectively questioning his expertise and credibility. Not everyone liked this.
“Facebook’s strategy shows that they don’t have a good answer to all these problems they are attacking,” said Gautam Hans, a technology law and free speech specialist at Vanderbilt University.
Small changes can make a big difference
Haugen said making changes to reduce the spread of misinformation and other harmful content would not require a wholesale reinvestment of social media. One of the simplest changes may be to let computers organize posts in chronological order rather than guessing what people want to see based on how much engagement – good or bad – it might attract.
Another click was to add before users could easily share content, which she said Facebook knows can dramatically reduce misinformation and hate speech.
“The changes I’m talking about are not going to make Facebook an unprofitable company, it won’t be an attractively profitable company like it is today,” she said.
She said Facebook itself would not make those changes if it could halt development, even though the company’s own research showed that people use the platform less when exposed to more toxic content.
“Someone might be the reason a kinder, friendlier, more collaborative Facebook might actually have more users five years from now, so it’s in everyone’s interest,” she said.
A glimpse inside the company
Haugen portrayed Facebook’s corporate environment as machine-like and driven by metrics that it was difficult to brake on known pitfalls that, if addressed, could dent growth and profits.
He described the company’s famous “flat” organizational philosophy—with few levels of management and an open-floor workplace at its California headquarters that packs nearly its entire staff into one spacious room—to the leadership needed to pull the plug. On bad thoughts as a hindrance.
She said the company was not prepared to create a disastrous platform, but noted that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has considerable power because he controls more than 50% of the company’s voting shares and let the metrics drive decision-making a decision in itself. Was. his part.
“Finally, the buck stops with Mark,” she said.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee said Tuesday’s hearing showed the need for new rules that would change the way Facebook targets users and enhances content. Such efforts in Washington have long failed, but several senators said Haugen’s testimony could be a catalyst for change.
“Our differences are very minor, or they seem too minor in the face of the revelations we have seen now, so I am hopeful that we can move forward,” said panel chairman De-Con Sen. Richard Blumenthal. .
Still, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota acknowledged that Facebook and other tech companies have too much power in the nation’s capital, which has blocked reforms in the past.
“There are lobbyists in every corner of this building who are hired by the tech industry,” Klobuchar said. “Facebook and other tech companies are throwing a bunch of money around this town and people are listening to them.”
AP Technology writer Matt O’Brien contributed to this report.