October 17, 2021

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What We Learned from the Facebook Whistleblower Hearing – The New York Times

35 min read

ImageFrances Haugen, a whistle-blower who exposed Facebook’s own research on the negative impacts of its platforms, testified in an Oct. 5 Senate hearing.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

A Facebook whistle-blower told lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday that the company can effectively police at most about a fifth of the vaccine misinformation that appears on its platform.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager for the company’s civic misinformation team who released a trove of internal documents demonstrating the social media company’s negative impacts, testified on Capitol Hill about a wide range of issues, briefly touching on the problem of virus misinformation.

Facebook and other online platforms like YouTube and Twitter have helped turbocharge the spread of false information about the coronavirus, vaccines and supposed cures, like the livestock deworming drug Ivermectin. The company said in February that it planned to remove posts that contained inaccurate statements about vaccines from its platform and has since last year been vocal about removing coronavirus misinformation.

But posts and groups spreading false information related to the coronavirus continued to appear. In July President Biden said Facebook was “killing people” through the inaccurate information it spread, though he walked the comment back after the company objected.

On Tuesday, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked Ms. Haugen whether Facebook had dedicated enough resources to removing coronavirus falsehoods, noting that YouTube said last week that it would ban all anti-vaccine misinformation.

“I do not believe Facebook, as currently structured, has the capability to stop vaccine misinformation,” Ms. Haugen said.

She added that Facebook said that its efforts were only likely to remove “10 to 20 percent of content.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Credit…Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a virtual news conference immediately after the hearing Tuesday, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee heaped praise on their witness.

“I have rarely if ever seen or heard as credible or compelling a witness on an issue so difficult or challenging,” Mr. Blumenthal said of Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager who testified. “Francis Haugen wants to fix Facebook, not burn it to the ground.”

Their defense of Ms. Haugen, who filed a whistle-blower complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission claiming the social media giant withheld material information from shareholders regarding topics as varied as teen mental health and human trafficking on the platform, comes as Facebook’s public relations team has sought to undermine her credibility.

“Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question,” read a statement from a Facebook spokeswoman, Lena Pietsch.

Mr. Blumenthal acknowledged that Ms. Haugen may not have worked in certain areas, but supplemented that with thousands of pages of documents she copied from the company before leaving. “She came armed,” he said.

Ms. Blackburn commended the witness and her preparation, noting that she was “there at the table by herself” with no need for notes. There was “no, ‘we will get back to you,’” she said, an allusion to past congressional appearances by Facebook executives including Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, that required follow-up answers after a hearing concluded.

Mr. Blumenthal also asked Mr. Zuckerberg to appear before the Senate commerce committee if he believed there were any inaccuracies in Ms. Haugen’s testimony. While he called the use of a subpoena on the billionaire technology executive “premature,” he noted that Mr. Zuckerberg has a “public responsibility to answer these questions.”

“Mark Zuckerberg may be one of the richest people in the history of the world,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “But today Frances Haugen showed that one person can stand up to that kind of power and make a difference.”

Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

Over the past few weeks, as the public has seen more of the whistle-blower’s information come to light, the reaction inside of the social network from its employees has been decidedly mixed. That was especially prevalent on Tuesday morning, when Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee and whistle-blower, came to Capitol Hill to explain her reasons for coming forward.

Some employees were frustrated with what they viewed as a vengeful ex-employee, taking out her frustrations on the company. Some of the current Facebook employees I follow on Twitter have signaled their anger in the form of “subtweets” — passive aggressive notes that are indirect grumblings about the whistle-blower.

I have also spoken to many people inside the company’s research and site integrity departments who believe that while it is difficult to undergo such intense public scrutiny, making this research public is ultimately a positive thing for Facebook. It allows the company to work through some of its problems — and allow for public scrutiny of those issues — instead of hiding the information inside internal systems.

That, it seems, was Ms. Haugen’s goal. She maintained that she still believes Facebook and social media in general can be a force for good — if, that is, companies can make the changes necessary for it to be so.

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‘We Can Do Better,’ Facebook Whistle-Blower Says

Frances Haugen, a former product manager at the company, spent hours detailing to lawmakers how the social network harmed young people. Facebook disagreed with her testimony, but said new rules for the internet were long overdue.

Yesterday, we saw Facebook get taken off the internet. I don’t know why it went down, and I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies. It also means that millions of small businesses weren’t able to reach potential customers, and countless photos of new babies weren’t joyously celebrated by family and friends around the world. I believe in the potential of Facebook. We can have social media we enjoy that connects us without tearing our democracy — apart our democracy — putting our children in danger and sowing ethnic violence around the world. We can do better. I have worked as a product manager at large tech companies since 2006, including Google, Pinterest, Yelp and Facebook. My job has largely focused on algorithmic products like Google Plus Search and recommendation systems like the one that powers the Facebook news feed. Having worked on four different types of social networks, I understand how complex and nuanced these problems are. However, the choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook make changes. During my time at Facebook, first working as the lead product manager for civic misinformation, and later on counter-espionage, I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolves these conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people. This is not simply a matter of certain social media users being angry or unstable, or about one side being radicalized against the other. It is about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs, becoming an almost trillion-dollar company by buying its profits with our safety.

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Frances Haugen, a former product manager at the company, spent hours detailing to lawmakers how the social network harmed young people. Facebook disagreed with her testimony, but said new rules for the internet were long overdue.CreditCredit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The hearing with Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle-blower, covered plenty of ground — and in a more in-depth way than at previous congressional hearings with executives of the social network. That may be because Ms. Haugen, 37, a product manager who worked at Facebook for two years before leaving in May, appeared to speak more freely.

Here are three main takeaways from the day:

  • Republican and Democratic lawmakers are united on taking action to stop the harms caused to teenagers on Facebook. Citing internal research brought to light by Ms. Haugen, lawmakers discussed how Facebook knew the harm that apps such as Instagram were causing to teens. Several senators discussed bills they have proposed that would add safety provisions for young users.

    At one point, Ms. Haugen suggested something even more radical: Increasing the minimum age for any person using social media to 17 years old from 13 years old.

  • Lawmakers have gotten smarter about tech. Lawmakers in the hearing explored the role that Facebook’s algorithms play in amplifying problematic content, and the way in which the company consistently tweaks its algorithm to choose one type of content over another.

    That’s far more sophisticated than the kinds of questions lawmakers have previously asked about Facebook. (Remember when, a few years ago, some lawmakers didn’t know how the company made money?) And while past hearings have focused on specific issues such as speech online or whether a certain individual or idea should be banned from the platforms, the discussion in Tuesday’s hearing was broader and touched on many facets of the active role that Facebook plays in the pieces of content that it promotes.

    That was buttressed by Ms. Haugen’s candor. She used knowledge of Facebook’s technology to explain how the algorithms work in layman’s language, and started a nuanced discussion on what lawmakers could do going forward.

  • Facebook is sitting on an even larger mountain of internal research. The thousands of documents provided by Ms. Haugen to lawmakers are likely just the tip of the iceberg. In her testimony, she encouraged lawmakers to demand more documents and internal research from Facebook, stating that it was only through complete transparency that Congress could hope to understand and eventually regulate social media.

    Ms. Haugen also hinted that there was more to come from her. During the hearing, she mentioned that she was speaking to a separate congressional committee on how Facebook has understaffed critical security teams that monitor whether countries were using the platform to spy on one another and run disinformation campaigns. She said the company was failing to adequately protect against threats emerging from China, Iran, Russia and other countries.

And Facebook spokeswoman Lena Pietsch responds to the hearing: “Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question. We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”

I can’t imagine Facebook is happy with how this hearing went. Ms. Haugen came across as credible and persuasive, and the lawmakers did an unusually good job sticking to the topic at hand and asking relevant questions. (There was no distracting viral moment à la “will you commit to ending finsta?“) 

So, what now? Ms. Haugen has presented damning evidence that Facebook knew more about the harms it was causing than it let on publicly, but it’s up to lawmakers to turn that evidence into regulations that address the specific issues she raised. It’s hard to be optimistic on that front, given Congress’s record on tech regulation. Still, Ms. Haugen has given them a lot to work with, and I imagine she won’t be the last Facebook whistleblower to come forward. If Congress fails to regulate Facebook effectively now, it won’t be because of a lack of evidence.

A correction to my earlier post: Senator Blumenthal was relaying the concerns from one of his constituent’s daughters, not his own. Here’s what that person told Mr. Blumenthal:

“I’m in tears right now watching your interaction with Frances Haugen. My 15-year-old daughter loved her body at 14. Was on Instagram constantly and maybe posting too much. Suddenly she started hating her body and her body dysmorphia, now anorexia, and was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear she will never be the same.”

Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

There are some technical terms being thrown around at Tuesday’s hearing with the Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen. Here’s a primer on what the former Facebook product manager and the senators are discussing:

Engagement-based ranking: Facebook and other social media platforms use engagement-based ranking to determine which content they believe is most relevant to users’ interests. After taking into account a post’s likes, shares and comments, as well as a user’s past interactions with similar content, the algorithms powering someone’s Twitter feed or Facebook’s news feed will place posts in front of that person. This is in contrast to a chronological ranking that simply is based on when content was posted or sent.

Meaningful social interactions (M.S.I.): In 2018, Facebook overhauled its news feed algorithm to prioritize interactions, such as comments and likes, between friends and family. The idea was to give more weight to the posts and engagements of people that Facebook thought were closest to users. In her testimony, Ms. Haugen argued that the change toward M.S.I. made Facebook an angrier social platform, and created an environment that encouraged polarization, misinformation, and shocking content.

Instagram for Kids: This is an informal name for a planned photo-sharing app for children under the age of 13. Last month, Instagram announced it was pausing the development of this product after uproar from an article in The Wall Street Journal showing that the company knew its products could harm teens’ mental health.

Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

One thing appears to have united Republican and Democratic lawmakers in this hearing: the research that whistle-blower Frances Haugen brought to light about the negative impact Instagram has on teenagers.

One of the key documents surfaced by Ms. Haugen showed that Facebook researchers who studied teenagers over the past three years found that Instagram could damage their mental health and body image, especially among girls. The document stated that Instagram exacerbated body image issues for teen girls already experiencing those feelings.

During her testimony, Ms. Haugen said teens on Instagram constantly compared themselves to polished accounts where people use professional hair and makeup. Many of the accounts also used Photoshop, the software that can make photos look better, to portray an unrealistic standard of beauty, she said. Despite reporting feeling “worse” after viewing those accounts, teenagers often felt compelled to keep following them, she added.

In a congressional hearing last Thursday, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, had said the documents were “not bombshell research.” She was widely criticized for that comment, especially after the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, conducted its own research on teenagers and Instagram ahead of that hearing.

In Mr. Blumenthal’s experiment, he created a “finsta,” or fake account, and posed as a 13-year-old girl. Then with the fake account, Mr. Blumenthal’s team “followed a few easily findable accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorders,” he said at last week’s hearing.

Within a day, Mr. Blumenthal said, Instagram was recommending accounts that promoted self-injury and eating disorders. “That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created,” he said.

“I have to be thin” and “eternally starved” were the names of some accounts that Instagram promoted to Mr. Blumenthal’s fake teen account, he said. All promoted extreme dieting.

Instagram said the accounts violated their rules and shouldn’t have been allowed on the platform.

And on that note, the hearing is over. A powerful day for the Facebook whistleblower on Capitol Hill, and a difficult one for the Menlo Park tech giant.

An emotional moment for Senator Blumenthal. With tears in his eyes, Mr. Blumenthal recounted to the hearing the real-world impact Instagram has had on a daughter of one of his constituents, who struggled with eating disorders herself.

We’re moving into hour three of Ms. Haugen’s testimony and she hasn’t shown any signs of flagging. Confident, poised and accurate, for my money she is one of the most impressive critics of Facebook I’ve seen appear on Capitol Hill.

Facebook’s public relations account just tweeted for the first time this morning. It wanted you to know that “creating Instagram videos just got even easier.” Unsurprisingly, there was nothing about the hearing.

Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

The testimony on Tuesday from Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager-turned-whistle-blower, about how Facebook and Instagram can be addictive and harmful to children, set off anger among parents online.

Some parents questioned their own complicity in allowing their young children to have social media accounts. Others blamed the platforms for harmful content.

Some Twitter users wrote that they had seen firsthand how social media platforms like Instagram had led to body image issues for their children and to bullying. Many said they were not surprised by some of Ms. Haugen’s revelations and had suspected that social media was bad for teenagers all along.

Others said they were rethinking allowing their children to create social media accounts and to interact with others online, often unattended, at a young age. Facebook was not concerned with the well-being of children, some argued, so the onus was on parents to protect their children.

One Twitter user, Joe Pratt, wrote that there was “no question” Facebook and Instagram “cause harm to teenagers.”

“My daughter is 12, she is not on these apps. Parents seriously, don’t let your kids on these apps,” he wrote. Mr. Pratt confirmed with The New York Times that he is a parent.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut who leads the subcommittee that questioned Ms. Haugen, also shared the experience of a parent who lives in his state.

“I’m in tears right now watching your interaction with Frances Haugen,” Mr. Blumenthal said during the hearing, quoting his constituent, who had sent him a text message. “My 15-year-old daughter loved her body at 14. Was on Instagram constantly and maybe posting too much. Suddenly she started hating her body and her body dysmorphia, now anorexia, and was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear she will never be the same.”

Ms. Haugen said she was surprised to see a New York Times story about how the company was using its own News Feed to attempt to sway public opinion about the company. You can read that story about “Project Amplify” here.

Senator Blackburn invited Facebook to come testify under oath about its research on teens, following Facebook spokesman Andy Stone’s tweet that Ms. Haugen did not have expertise in testifying on certain matters.

Credit…Pool photo by Drew Angerer

We’re a few hours in (but who’s keeping track?) and Ms. Haugen just underlined her opposition to breaking up Facebook. The systems will “continue to be dangerous even if they’re broken up,” she said. This is part of reason why she hasn’t shared her documents with the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating the company for antitrust.

And if there are more insiders willing to speak out, talk to us!

Interesting move by Mr. Blumenthal to take a moment to commend Ms. Haugen and make a plea for other whistleblowers to come forward. “There are people working for Facebook that wish they had the opportunity and courage to come forward as you have,” he said. Will we see more insiders speak out?

Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

I think what Ms. Haugen is saying about company-wide incentives is key. She said Facebook “did the best it could” in acting on types of harmful content that shouldn’t be on the network. But she also said the entire company is organized around making sure people keep coming back to the platform. “People will choose the more addictive option — engagement-based ranking,” she said. That means bonuses, promotions and climbing inside of the organization is largely based on graphs going up and to the right — even if Facebook protests that isn’t the case.

In effect, a change to what content performs well on Facebook means an overhaul of how its corporate structure works, from the top down. It might be an indictment of how *all* tech works, chasing growth over well-being over time.

Ms. Haugen just mentioned that she is speaking to a different Senate committee about the problems surrounding Facebook’s surveillance of cyber espionage. Like the other problems she has raised, she seemed to be suggesting that they are understaffed and can’t monitor what countries like Iran, China and Russia are doing on the platform. Seems like there is more to come from Ms. Haugen!

Over the last few weeks, Facebook has challenged the internal research unveiled by Ms. Haugen on Instagram and teen mental health. The company has said that its findings actually showed that its photo-sharing app improved teenagers’ body image in some situations. Ms. Haugen just pushed back, noting that if this was the case, we would be in “a golden age” of teenage mental health.

Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Lawmakers have come a long way in their understanding of technology. In the hearing, members of the Senate consumer protection subcommittee homed in on how Facebook’s algorithms and systems were designed to promote the most extreme content.

“Facebook exploited teens using powerful algorithms to amplify their insecurities,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, the chairman of the subcommittee holding Tuesday’s hearing, said.

Senator John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota, asked Frances Haugen, the whistle-blower testifying, to explain how “engagement-based ranking” works, the technology that gets users to return and engage more frequently on the platform. Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican of Tennessee, asked how Facebook handled data of under-aged users, even after their accounts were closed.

Mr. Blumenthal’s office created a dummy Instagram account of a 13-year-old who expressed interest in losing weight. Instagram pushed the account to harmful content related to eating disorders.

“That’s how Instagram’s algorithms work, and push teens into darker and darker places,” he said.

Lawmakers’ questions and comments are starkly different from those of years past.

In April 2018, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican of Utah who is now retired, asked Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, how Facebook made money. The chief executive quipped “Senator, we run ads,” a comment that became an internet meme on how Congress is woefully behind on technology and unable to oversee the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley.

Mr. Hatch’s question was taken out of context, but since then, the public has lamented the vast gulf in expertise between Washington and the technology sector.

I appreciate the language Ms. Haugen has been using, almost like she has been consoling an entity that has gotten in over its head. Speaking to Facebook in the abstract, she said “you can declare moral bankruptcy, you can admit you did something wrong. And we can move forward.”

“They need to admit they did something wrong, and they need help to solve these problems.” Powerful stuff.

In her answers, Ms. Haugen has consistently provided lawmakers with a roadmap for next steps. She has cited research they can demand from Facebook, and has suggested paths forward on regulation. If the Senators follow her guidance, this has the potential to be one of the most impactful Congressional hearings we have seen on Big Tech.

Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, asked Ms. Haugen about political “censorship” on the platform, a frequent conservative complaint during Congressional hearings about social media. Ms. Haugen turned the conversation toward algorithmic ranking on the social network, and Mr. Cruz was not as aggressive as he normally is on the topic.

Credit…Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc., via Getty Images

The hearing has resumed. Senator John Hickenlooper opened questioning by talking about what regulation could look like.

This hearing has been the most in-depth discussion we have ever heard in Congress about social media. Even for journalists like us who follow every twist and turn of Facebook closely, this has been an illuminating discussion of how decisions made at the core of the company’s products lead to problems we see across the platform.

Also: So many zingers!

The hearing has been surprisingly cordial. Past hearings about social media have featured lawmakers who sometimes end up arguing with witnesses. Senators from both sides have seemed genuinely interested in what Ms. Haugen has had to share and there’s been little grandstanding — so far.

Senators have referenced the series of articles published by The Wall Street Journal starting last month, largely based on documents brought to light by Ms. Haugen, which kicked off this entire conversation. The series highlighted how Facebook made decisions that fostered hate speech and misinformation, knew that its products were harmful to teens and studied how drug cartels and human traffickers used the platform to conduct business.

And now time for a short break from questioning. The senators had to leave briefly to attend a vote.

Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One standout from this hearing so far is how Frances Haugen, the whistle-blower who once worked at Facebook, is using her insider knowledge of the social network to provide new insights that few outsiders have heard before.

Ms. Haugen, citing the internal documents that she provided to lawmakers, stressed how the problems with the social network lay with Facebook’s algorithms and the decisions the company made as to what people see on the platform. Ms. Haugen said that lawmakers had to demand more transparency from Facebook into its algorithms and internal metrics if they hoped to understand and regulate it.

“We can afford nothing less than full transparency,” she said. “As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows and hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable.”

She also gave insight into Facebook’s internal problems. Constant scandals had left the Silicon Valley company understaffed because many people had quit, she said, and it was struggling to hire enough new employees.

Ultimately, Facebook’s ownership structure was also an issue, she said. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, holds a disproportionate amount of control over the company as he owns more than 55 percent of its voting shares.

“There is nobody currently holding Zuckerberg accountable but himself,” Ms. Haugen said. “The buck stops with Mark.”

Ms. Haugen suggested a change to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that protects platforms from being held legally liable for content posted by their users. Specifically, she said she would recommend exempting platform decisions about algorithms from Section 230 protections — so that Facebook and other apps could be sued for their choices about how to rank content in users’ feeds.

Her suggestion mirrored a bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, that was introduced recently by two Democratic members of Congress, which would exempt platform decisions about algorithms from Section 230’s protections.

While the subcommittee hearing was billed as one about “protecting kids online,” the senators have peppered Ms. Haugen with a variety of questions that have taken the discussion to topics like the Jan. 6th insurrection, the algorithms behind Facebook’s “meaningful social interactions,” and ethnic violence in Ethiopia. Teen safety on Instagram seemed like a bipartisan issue to unite lawmakers, but it’s clear there is interest in much of what Ms. Haugen revealed well beyond that.

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A Safer Social Media ‘Is Possible,’ Facebook Whistle-Blower Says

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, told senators that there were solutions to problems seen across social media platforms and that a safer, free-speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media was possible.

Facebook wants you to believe that the problems we’re talking about are unsolvable. They want you to believe in false choices. They want you to believe that you must choose between a Facebook full of divisive and extreme content or losing one of the most important values our country was founded upon: free speech. They must choose between public oversight of Facebook’s choices and your personal privacy. But to be able to share fun photos of your kids with old friends, you must also be inundated with anger-driven virality. They want you to believe that this is just part of the deal. I am here today to tell you that’s not true. These problems are solvable. A safer, free-speech respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible.

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Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, told senators that there were solutions to problems seen across social media platforms and that a safer, free-speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media was possible.CreditCredit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, is testifying before a Senate subcommittee. Below is an excerpt from her opening statement at the hearing.

Facebook wants you to believe that the problems we’re talking about are unsolvable. They want you to believe in false choices. They want you to believe that you must choose between a Facebook full of divisive and extreme content or losing one of the most important values our country was founded upon: free speech. That you must choose between public oversight of Facebook’s choices and your personal privacy. That to be able to share fun photos of your kids with old friends, you must also be inundated with anger-driven virality. They want you to believe that this is just part of the deal. I am here today to tell you that’s not true. These problems are solvable. A safer, free-speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible.

To be clear, when Ms. Haugen said “Facebook understands” something about its platform and decides not to act, that decision ultimately rests with Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive and chairman of the company. As she noted earlier in the hearing, Facebook’s share structure gives him ultimate voting power over the company and its direction.

Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

In her opening remarks at a Senate subcommittee hearing with a Facebook whistle-blower on Tuesday, Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee made a stunning allegation.

“News broke yesterday that the private data of over 1.5 billion — that’s right, 1.5 billion — Facebook users is being sold on a hacking forum,” Ms. Blackburn, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member, said. “That’s its biggest data breach to date.”

The problem is that the breach that Ms. Blackburn referenced is largely unverified, and possibly fake. The claim comes from an anonymous account on a forum that, according to Vice, obtained access to the database from a supposed company called “X2Emails.” The anonymous post, from Sept. 22, promised “scraped” data on “more than 1.5b Database of Facebook” consisting of users’ email addresses, locations, phone numbers, and other identifying information.

Some news outlets reported on the breach as fact, but there is no proof yet of a hack. Aric Toler, a researcher with Bellingcat, an investigative journalism group, pointed out that someone claimed to have paid for the supposedly hacked information and found out that it was a scam.

“Maybe it’s real, but no reason to breathlessly report it like this,” he wrote.

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, said, “We’re investigating this claim and have sent a takedown request to the forum that’s advertising the alleged data.”

Ms. Haugen talked about the dangers of “engagement-based ranking,” which is a fancy way of describing the ways that Facebook, and other social platforms, use algorithms to prioritize posts based on how many likes, shares and comments they generate. She contrasted it with iMessage, Apple’s text messaging platform, which ranks messages chronologically, in order of when they arrived. And she said that in addition to boosting harmful, hyper-engaging content in the U.S., Facebook’s engagement-based ranking system is “literally fanning ethnic violence” in places like Ethiopia.

Facebook has begun to push back on Ms. Haugen’s testimony — in real time. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, tweeted that the witness “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.” We’ll see how far that goes to challenge the testimony.

Despite being battered by lawmakers all morning, Facebook seems unaffected. Since the hearing began, its share price has risen 2 percent to roughly $332 and continues to push upward.

Senator Amy Klobuchar made a reference to Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent sailing trip, which he documented in a video on his Facebook page. It was the third or fourth angry mention of sailing so far today. (Free communications advice to billionaires: Next time your company is under fire from regulators, maybe choose a more modest hobby.)

Credit…Pool photo by Drew Angerer

Practically every lawmaker in Washington says that Facebook needs to be regulated.

But how? That’s where opinions vary widely.

The last major internet law was adopted more than 30 years ago. And legislators struggle with new laws that can protect users — including teenagers — that don’t also curb free expression. For decades, U.S. legislators have debated data privacy laws, which exist in Europe and several states, but have not agreed on a federal regulation.

The greatest activity is coming from antitrust enforcement, with cases to break up Facebook and Google winding through courts. President Biden’s new team of antitrust enforcers, led by Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission, promises to hobble the dominant power of Amazon, Facebook and Google to solve broader problems of poor labor conditions, income inequality and climate change.

“I do think Congress can get something done on antitrust and tech,” said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Cowen research. “But I’m not seeing anything that suggests they’ll act on content moderation, which people actually care a lot more about.”

The whistle-blower at the center of Tuesday’s hearing, Frances Haugen, is expected to push for laws that address algorithmic amplification of harmful content. Such laws could force companies like Facebook to share with academics and the public data on how their ranking systems for content work and how hate speech spreads on the sites. One bill already proposed by Representative Anna Eshoo, Democrat of California, would give the F.T.C. more authority to regulate behavioral advertising, Facebook’s core business model.

“The severity of this crisis demands that we break out of previous regulatory frames,” Ms. Haugen said in written testimony submitted ahead of the hearing. “A critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency: full access to data for research not directed by Facebook.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat of Minnesota, said she would ask how algorithms promote harmful and divisive content and if Facebook’s security efforts fell far too short during the capitol riots.

“As chair of the rules committee, I am also particularly interested in hearing from her about whether she thinks Facebook did enough to warn law enforcement and the public about January 6th and whether Facebook removed election misinformation safeguards because it was costing the company financially.”

Part of what I’m finding so valuable in Ms. Haugen’s testimony is how easily she seems to be swatting down many of Facebook’s standard defenses. One particular reference to Facebook claiming it can’t find underage kids on the platform because they lie about their age when they sign up was easily knocked down; Ms. Haugen said the company can do its standard analyses that it carries out on other types of audiences on the platform. It just chooses not to do so. It is rare to see this kind of inside knowledge of Facebook.

In response to a question from Mr. Blumenthal about whether Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for Facebook’s algorithms, Ms. Haugen made a subtle point about Facebook’s famously data-driven culture, saying that while Mr. Zuckerberg is ultimately in control, the company often relies on testing and data about what users prefer to guide its decisions. At Facebook, she said, “the metrics make the decision.”

One thing Ms. Haugen keeps noting is how she still believes in Facebook as a platform, and that it can still be used as a force for good. I don’t really hear that very often from people outside of the company. It’s usually a “burn it all down” approach to social media and decrying it is a net negative for the world. For what it’s worth, folks inside of Facebook have long maintained that it does more good than it does ill in the world. (No empirical data to that effect that I’ve seen, though.)

Credit…Pool photo by Drew Angerer

Ms. Haugen explained why she leaked the documents. They proved that Facebook “has repeatedly misled the public” about the safety of children, the accuracy of artificial intelligence systems, and Facebook’s spread of divisive and extreme messages. “I came forward because I believe that every human being deserves the dignity of the truth,” she said.

Ms. Haugen’s experience and her work in Silicon Valley are what distinguishes her as a witness today. As she said in her opening testimony, “Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what is happening inside.” Ms. Haugen has come as an insider and brought thousands of internal documents to bolster her case.

Credit…Lisa Maree Williams for The New York Times

Annie Zhu got an Instagram account during her freshman year of high school. At first, she curated her profile carefully, showing off different outfits and looks. She followed body positivity and body neutrality accounts. But she still sometimes compared herself with others, and “it can make me feel bad,” she said.

So when she recently listened to a podcast revealing how Facebook’s research concluded that Instagram, which it owns, was toxic for teenage girls, she said, the findings “didn’t surprise me at all.”

“In my past experiences, it has been a huge struggle,” Ms. Zhu, an 18-year-old Stanford University freshman, said in an interview.

Among young people, the idea that Instagram can hurt someone’s self-image is widely discussed. Ms. Zhu said she and her friends talked about how social interactions on Instagram felt inauthentic. Some friends have deleted the app because they didn’t think it was contributing positively to their lives, she added. She said she now used Instagram largely as a messaging system and rarely posted on it.

“If you ask a young person, it’s something you deal with on a daily basis,” said Vicki Harrison, who directs the Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing at Stanford. “You don’t need this research to tell you this.”

Ms. Harrison works with the GoodforMEdia project, a peer mentoring initiative for older teenagers and young adults to share experiences and advice on using social media. Teenagers she works with have told her that Instagram is often the hardest platform for them because of how polished users’ social media profiles are.

Their experiences were echoed in Facebook’s internal research. Documents that a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, provided to The Wall Street Journal showed that Instagram made body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.

Facebook has responded that the research did not show a causal link and that a majority of teenage girls experiencing body-image issues reported that Instagram either made their body image better or had no impact.

Iris Tsouris, a freshman at Yale University, said Instagram had worsened her body image issues. While she follows some body positivity accounts, that kind of content doesn’t show up in the algorithm-curated posts on her Instagram Explore page — where she instead sees posts about replacing meals with iced coffee.

Facebook’s research was “not at all” eye-opening to her, she said.

“It perpetuates negative self-image in people, stuff that might feed into eating disorders,” Ms. Tsouris, 18, said. “I’ve definitely seen people impacted by jealousy or the fear of missing out.”

Still, some teenagers said they were glad the research was out, even if they were not sure what it would change.

“The fact that Facebook knows is important,” said Claire Turney, 18, a freshman at the University of Virginia who attended high school with Ms. Tsouris. “That they know that it is destructive and they continue to market it to teenage girls is a little messy in my opinion, but that’s capitalism.”

Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The Senate Commerce committee has been preparing for this hearing for weeks, with the two top members huddling with their aides and Facebook policy experts to prepare their lines of questioning.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut who chairs the Senate commerce subcommittee on consumer protections, said in a tweet that he had been speaking with the whistle-blower testifying on Tuesday, Frances Haugen, in the lead-up to the hearing.

“From her first visit with my office, I’ve admired her backbone & bravery in revealing terrible truths about one of the world’s most powerful, implacable corporate giants,” Mr. Blumenthal wrote. “Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself. We must consider stronger oversight, effective protections for children, & tools for parents, among the needed reforms.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn, the top Republican on the committee, said that she has been combing over the documents provided by Ms. Haugen.

In her prepared remarks ahead of the hearing, Senator Blackburn said that Facebook was “running scared.”

“They know that — in their words — ‘young adults are less active and less engaged on Facebook’ and that they are running out of teens to add to Instagram,” she said, adding that Congress’ role was to provide oversight to Facebook. “By shining a light on Mr. Zuckerberg and company’s conduct, we will help hold them accountable.”

Last week, the same committee held a hearing with Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, in which they accused the company of using the “big tobacco” playbook by hiding research that suggested that their products introduced hate speech, misinformation and other harms through its platform.

The committee also includes Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat of Minnesota, who recently proposed legislation that would hold Facebook accountable for Covid-19 misinformation, and Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, who last week reintroduced legislation to provide more protection to young people online.

Senator Roger Wicker, the Republican from Mississippi, said “the children of America are hooked” on Facebook’s apps. It’s a popular talking point, but it’s interesting to contrast the image of an irresistible, addictive Facebook with the internal research Ms. Haugen provided, which showed that teens were abandoning Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, Instagram) at a rate that alarmed the company’s executives.

Frances Haugen has started testifying. She says that Facebook will continue to put its “astronomical profits before people,” and that congressional intervention is needed. No mincing of words there.

Credit…Pool photo by Jabin Botsford

Credit…Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Hours before “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview on Sunday with a whistle-blower who has roiled Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, posted a video online.

The 38-second clip featured him and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, sailing. The footage, which was taken with new Facebook glasses that can record video, made no reference to the weekslong scandal that has engulfed the company after the whistle-blower leaked documents showing that the social network had studied and understood the harmful effects of its products.

Since The Wall Street Journal started publishing articles based on that leaked information last month, Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, have said nothing publicly about the revelations. Instead, Facebook’s responses have featured Nick Clegg, the vice president of global affairs, and Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, among others.

That has led lawmakers and others to question: Where are Facebook’s top two leaders?

Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg are deliberately avoiding public comment on the leaked documents, people with knowledge of the matter previously told The New York Times. That way, the executives can avoid negative press and appear to be above the fray, they said.

For months, Facebook has had an internal plan to separate Mr. Zuckerberg from the company’s crises. Instead, his public communications and posts have been focused on product announcements and his plans for the “metaverse,” where people maintain some sense of continuity through all the different digital worlds they inhabit.

Ms. Sandberg, too, has focused on other topics in her public communications. She recently added a post about small businesses in the United Arab Emirates to her Facebook page.

Mr. Zuckerberg deviated from that strategy only recently.

On Monday, he posted about a worldwide outage of the social network and its apps, which lasted more than five hours. “Sorry for the disruption today — I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about,” he wrote.

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