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'Facebook's products harm children': Whistleblower demands action

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen arrives to testify before a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Pool via AP)
Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen arrives to testify before a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Pool via AP)
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Facebook is facing existential questions after a whistleblower alleged the social media company’s business model entails knowingly subjecting children and other users to harm and misinformation to increase engagement and profits.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data manager, testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection Tuesday, days after revealing herself as the insider who provided thousands of pages of internal documents to The Wall Street Journal for a series of reports about the company’s practices. She has filed at least eight complaints with federal regulators accusing Facebook of withholding information about the dangers of its products.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” Haugen told lawmakers. “Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Members of Congress have been weighing new regulations targeting social media platforms for years as many experts and officials assert laws written in the early days of the internet are no longer adequate. Significant partisan differences remain over what reforms are needed, but Haugen’s testimony added new urgency to the debate.

Haugen has claimed Facebook executives allowed hateful content and misinformation to flow even after analysts alerted them to the harm the platform caused. She leaked documents that indicated use of Instagram by teens resulted in mental health and body image issues, including an increase in suicidal thoughts and eating disorders.

“I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy, and much more,” she said.

While Republicans and Democrats are divided over how to define and deal with misinformation and hate speech, there is bipartisan consensus on protecting children from detrimental content. Tuesday’s hearing was part of an ongoing probe of social media platforms’ efforts to shield younger users from negative consequences, which also included testimony from Facebook’s global head of safety last week.

Facebook disputed Haugen’s claims, stressing her work did not involve child safety or other subjects about which she has spoken. Much of what she said appears to be backed up by the internal reports she leaked, but the company maintained the evidence was cherry-picked to support her narrative.

“We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” said Lena Pietsch, Facebook director of policy communications.

Mitch Prinstein, a representative of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, said Haugen’s testimony and the reports she leaked were troubling but not particularly surprising to experts in the field. Researchers have long been concerned about the effects of social media on children’s development, as well as exposure to illegal content, discrimination, and cyberbullying.

“There are all kinds of findings that suggest Facebook’s revelations may be the tip of the iceberg,” said Prinstein, who serves as chief science officer at the American Psychological Association.

Critics say apps like Instagram are designed to keep young users engaged and online, regardless of the risks. Amid scrutiny over The Wall Street Journal reporting last month, Facebook backed off plans to launch a new child-focused version of the photo-sharing app.

In a CNN interview Sunday, Facebook executive Nick Clegg claimed the company does “more than any reasonable person can expect” to maintain safety and integrity. However, he acknowledged the company is incapable of policing all content and preventing all harm.

“We’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100% of the time," Clegg said.

According to Haugen, crafting more effective regulation of Facebook would begin by allowing external researchers to review its data and establish new rules and standards. In her testimony, she compared the company to makers of tobacco and opioids who faced stiff federal scrutiny after the damage caused by their products was revealed.

“As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one,” she said.

Despite rejecting most of Haugen’s allegations, Facebook agreed internet regulations need to be updated. The company has argued for increasing transparency, accountability, and oversight for content moderation while preserving liability protections for sites that follow industry best practices, and it has called for new privacy and data rules that reflect modern needs.

“Instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act,” Pietsch said Tuesday.

Experts say logging onto social media is not inherently harmful to younger users and the platforms can potentially spur positive developmental outcomes. However, if children focus on amassing followers, comparing themselves to others, or seeking praise from others – as many younger users apparently do – the damage can be quite severe.

“The key is not how much kids are using social media,” Prinstein said. “It’s what they’re doing and who they were before they logged in.”

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Ensuring that teens use social media responsibly can be difficult, but keeping them off the platforms entirely might not be possible. According to Prinstein, protecting children requires a commitment from parents, educators, and tech companies to teach them social media literacy and warn them away from misinformation and dangerous content.

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“It might be anathema to what social media is trying to do, which is keep kids on as much as possible...,” he said. “Do social media companies want to be in the business of helping kids get the most from their platform or collecting the most money they can for kids’ behaviors?”

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