The former employee revealed how the internet giant prioritizes profit over the public good in her stunning Senate speech.
Frances Haugen went from disgruntled ex-employee to modern-day heroine in less than five months. The 37-year-old was publicly honored as a “21st-century American hero” on Washington’s Capitol Hill last week after logging out of Facebook’s workplace network for the last time in May.
That path was built with tens of thousands of internal papers obtained by Haugen from Facebook’s internal system, which formed the foundation of a series of damaging revelations first reported in the Wall Street Journal last month.
They disclosed that Facebook was aware that its products were harming the mental health of young girls, that it fought improvements to make its main platform’s content less divisive, and that it was aware that its primary platform was being used to instigate ethnic conflict in Ethiopia.
The public outcry that followed pushed Facebook into its worst crisis since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, culminating in Haugen’s scathing testimony before US lawmakers last Tuesday.
Her first words came against a harrowing backdrop for Facebook: only hours before, all of the company’s services – including its eponymous platform, the Instagram photo and video sharing app, and the WhatsApp messaging service – had gone offline for six hours due to a maintenance error that impacted the company’s 2.8 billion daily users. On Friday, Facebook’s services experienced more issues.
“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen addressed a Senate subcommittee.
“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. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.” In 2020, Facebook recorded a net income – a measure of earnings in the US – of more than $29 billion (£21 billion).
In nearly four hours of testimony, Haugen outlined her nearly two-year time at Facebook as part of a team tasked with avoiding election meddling on the company’s platforms. She consistently cited the company’s preference for development and profit over safety, and she cautioned that Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms, which personalize what a user sees, were harming them.
She told lawmakers in one discussion that Facebook was aware that Instagram users were being directed to anorexia-related information. “Over a very short amount of time, an algorithm guided youngsters from really harmless themes like healthy recipes… all the way to anorexia-promoting content,” she added.
Interlocutors praised Haugen, with Democratic Senator Ed Markey hailing her as a “21st-century American hero.”
Haugen isn’t the only one who has expressed concerns about the tech behemoth. Christopher Wylie, a Canadian data analyst, told the Observer in 2018 that his former business, Cambridge Analytica, had acquired millions of Facebook accounts of American voters. The US Federal Trade Commission penalized Facebook $5 billion a year later for “deceiving” consumers about its ability to keep personal information secure.
When Wylie’s disclosures were made public, Facebook apologized and stated that it was limiting the amount of data its apps could access.