Facebook is a national security risk and unsafe for children — and lawmakers had better do something about it, fast.
That was the urgent plea from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who blasted her ex-employer during Senate testimony on Tuesday, accusing chief executive Mark Zuckerberg of having unchecked power and calling for government regulators to step in.
“There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled [as Facebook],” said Haugen, a former Facebook employee who leaked thousands of internal documents to lawmakers and the Wall Street Journal. “The buck stops with Mark. There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
“As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one and it will continue to make choices that go against the common good,” she added, calling on the company to declare “moral bankruptcy.”
Material leaked by Haugen showed that Facebook has downplayed Instagram’s negative effects on teens’ mental health despite damning internal research. Others showed that the company exempts popular users from some content moderation rules and has failed to crack down on drug cartels and human traffickers.
“The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public,” said Haugen in testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee. “I came forward at great personal risk because I believe we still have time to act.”
In the face of Haugen’s revelations, Zuckerberg has appeared flippant. He has not commented on the whistleblower or the Journal’s articles beyond making a joke about a surfboard — and posted a video of himself going sailing on Sunday, the same day that Haugen revealed her identity in an interview with “60 Minutes.”
“Rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) during the hearing.
Haugen’s assertion came days after Facebook’s safety chief Antigone Davis denied in a hearing with the same Senate subcommittee that Zuckerberg has unilateral control over decisions at Facebook.
Davis also downplayed the research leaked by Haugen, arguing that it did not establish a “causal” connection between Instagram and teen mental health issues.
“This research is not a bombshell,” Davis insisted.
Under largely sympathetic questioning from Senators, Haugen painted Instagram as a uniquely harmful product for teens, arguing that its algorithm hooks teens by pushing addictive content that can foster mental health issues like eating disorders.
“TikTok is about doing fun things with your friends, Snapchat is about faces and augmented reality, Reddit is about ideas,” she said. “But Instagram is about bodies, and about comparing lifestyles.”
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone tried to minimize Haugen’s testimony on Tuesday, writing on Twitter that she “did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook.”
Stone also shared a statement from Facebook’s director of policy communications Lena Pietsch saying Haugen had “testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.”
But Haugen says her credibility as a whistleblower should be based on the fact that she leaked reams of Facebook documents from researchers who were working on child safety and Instagram — not just her word.
Senators were chomping at the bit for regulation, repeatedly comparing Facebook to big tobacco — but it’s unclear exactly what form that regulation will take.
Haugen said she would support rules requiring social media companies to display posts in chronological form, meaning the most recent posts are displayed first, rather than the current system of “engagement-based ranking” that she said maximizes extreme views and clickbait.
“We don’t want computers deciding what we focus on,” she said.
But Haugen also pushed back against a push from bills from bipartisan lawmakers and an antirust case from the Federal Trade Commission seeking to break up Facebook by making it sell properties like Instagram and WhatsApp. Haugen argued that breaking up Facebook wouldn’t change harmful algorithms.
Elsewhere during her three-hour testimony, Haugen raised national security concerns about her former employer.
“Facebook’s consistent understaffing of the counterespionage, information operations and counterterrorism teams is a national security issue,” she said. “I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today.”
In response, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the committee may ask Haugen to testify again for a hearing specifically focused on national security.
Haugen worked at Facebook from June 2019 to May 2020, reading and copying thousands of documents from the company’s internal document system, called “Workplace.” Those documents included the studies on misinformation, trafficking and other harmful content that eventually were published by the Journal.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, has repeatedly said in media appearances that the very fact that such internal research exists shows the company’s commitment to understanding its impact on society.
“If we didn’t want to address those questions, we wouldn’t commission the research in the first place,” Clegg said Sunday on CNN.
Additional reporting by Will Feuer