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Facebook hits back at whistleblower claims, but joins her call for regulations

Mark Zuckerberg accuses former employee Frances Haugen of painting false picture in damning Senate testimony, as lawmakers vow action to rein in social media behemoth

Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaks during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington.  (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)
Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaks during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hit back Tuesday at claims the social media giant fuels division, harms children and needs to be regulated, saying an ex-employee’s charge that the company puts profits over safety is “just not true.”

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, told Congress Tuesday she believes stricter government oversight could alleviate the dangers the company poses, from harming children to inciting political violence to fueling misinformation.

“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen Haugen told a Senate panel. “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,” she said. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

She testified on Capitol Hill after she leaked reams of internal research to authorities and The Wall Street Journal, which has fueled one of Facebook’s most serious crises yet.

In a note to Facebook employees Tuesday, Zuckerberg disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users, or that pushes divisive content.

“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” Zuckerberg wrote in a note to Facebook employees that he then posted on his account, hours after a whistleblower testified before US lawmakers.

In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University in Washington. Zuckerberg isn’t budging over his refusal to take action on inflammatory posts by President Donald Trump that spread misinformation about voting by mail and, many said, encouraged violence against protesters. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.”

He did, however, appear to agree with Haugen on the need for updated internet regulations, saying that would relieve private companies from having to make decisions on social issues on their own.

“We’re committed to doing the best work we can, but at some level the right body to assess tradeoffs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress,” he wrote.

In her testimony, Haugen emphasized the power held by a service that is tightly woven into the daily lives of billions of users.

Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee during a hearing entitled ‘Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower’ at the Russell Senate Office Building on October 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

She also noted the risks that the social media giant’s platforms are fueling a contagion of eating disorders, body-shaming and self-dissatisfaction that is particularly dangerous for young people.

“There are going to be women walking around this planet in 60 years with brittle bones because of the choices that Facebook made around emphasizing profit today,” she said, referring to the impact of eating disorders.

She returned repeatedly to the idea that Facebook is a platform where human behavior was being manipulated to keep people on the app and engaged.

Haugen spoke less than a day after Facebook, its photo-sharing app Instagram and messaging service WhatsApp went offline for roughly seven hours, hitting potentially billions of users and highlighting global dependence on its services.

In this photo illustration, the Facebook logo is displayed next to a screen showing that the Facebook website is down on October 04, 2021 in San Anselmo, California. Social media applications Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are experiencing a global outage that started before 9 a.m. (P.S.T.) on Monday morning. (Photo by JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

“Here’s my message for (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg. Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content and preying on children and teens is over,” said Senator Ed Markey.

“Congress will be taking action… we will not allow your company to harm our children, our families and our democracy anymore,” he added.

Senator Amy Klobuchar said she sees the whistleblower disclosures as the long-needed push to get Congress moving.

“I think the time has come for action, and I think you are the catalyst for that action,” she told Haugen.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., right, speak to former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, center, during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, on Capitol Hill, October 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

US lawmakers for years have threatened to regulate social media platforms to address criticisms that the tech giants trample on privacy, provide a megaphone for dangerous misinformation and damage young people’s well-being.

Facebook has pushed back hard against the Journal stories underpinned by the voluminous internal studies that Haugen leaked, and the company fiercely objected to her testimony on Tuesday.

A Facebook statement called her “a former product manager who worked at the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives.”

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

“It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated… it is time for Congress to act,” she said, echoing Facebook’s previous position that regulation is the responsibility of lawmakers, not private companies.

Haugen, a 37-year-old data scientist from Iowa who has worked for companies including Google and Pinterest, delivered hours of testimony that showed a developed understanding of Facebook’s mentality.

A woman checks her Instagram account as she stands on a street in New York city on October 4, 2021. – Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp platforms were hit by a massive outage, impacting potentially tens of millions of people as users flocked to other networks to sound off. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP)

“A lot of the changes I’m talking about are not going to make Facebook an unprofitable company,” she said. “It just won’t be a ludicrously profitable company like it is today.”

Democrats and Republicans have shown a rare unity around the revelations of Facebook’s handling of potential risks to teens from Instagram, and bipartisan bills have proliferated to address social media and data-privacy problems. But getting legislation through Congress is a heavy slog. The Federal Trade Commission has taken a stricter stance toward Facebook and other tech giants in recent years.

“Whenever you have Republicans and Democrats on the same page, you’re probably more likely to see something,” said Gautam Hans, a technology law and free speech expert at Vanderbilt University.

“It’s possible, but far from assured, that today’s hearing will mark a real inflection point,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

The subcommittee is examining Facebook’s use of information its own researchers compiled about Instagram. Those findings could indicate potential harm for some of its young users, especially girls, although Facebook publicly downplayed possible negative impacts. For some of the teens devoted to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research leaked by Haugen showed.

One internal study cited 13.5% of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

SumOfUs erected a seven-foot visual protest outside the US Capitol depicting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg surfing on a wave of cash, while young women surround him appearing to be suffering Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Washington. (Eric Kayne/AP Images for SumofUS)

Haugen suggested that the minimum age for Facebook’s popular Instagram photo-sharing platform could be increased from the current 13 to 16 or 18.

She also acknowledged the limitations of possible remedies. Facebook, like other social media companies, uses algorithms to rank and recommend content to users’ news feeds. When the ranking is based on engagement — likes, shares and comments — as it is now with Facebook, users can be vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation. Haugen would prefer the ranking to be chronological. But, she testified, “People will choose the more addictive option even if it is leading their daughters to eating disorders.”

Haugen said a 2018 change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.

Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, she said Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back — a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate the vast majority of its revenue.

Haugen said she believed Facebook didn’t set out to build a destructive platform. “I have a huge amount of empathy for Facebook,” she said. “These are really hard questions, and I think they feel a little trapped and isolated.”

But “in the end, the buck stops with Mark,” Haugen said, referring to Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50% of Facebook’s voting shares. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”

Haugen said she believed that Zuckerberg was familiar with some of the internal research showing concerns for potential negative impacts of Instagram.

She also has filed complaints with federal authorities alleging that Facebook’s own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest, but that the company hides what it knows.

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