Facebook is 'making hate worse' as algorithms 'prioritise extreme content', says whistleblower

joint select committee frances haugen online safety bill (parliamentlive.tv)
Whistleblower Frances Haugen warned Facebook is fuelling extremism and hatred (parliamentlive.tv)

A whistleblower has warned that Facebook is stoking extremism and hatred.

Addressing MPs at a meeting of the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen said the tech giant's algorithms helped “prioritise extreme content”.

Haugen left Facebook earlier this year, and took more than 10,000 documents with her – handing them to the Wall Street Journal.

“Part of why I came forward is that I am extremely worried about the condition of our societies … and of the interaction of the choices that Facebook has made and how it plays out more broadly,” she told MPs.

She painted a stark picture on the role Facebook is playing in spread of hatred online.

“Engagement-based ranking prioritises extreme content,” she said.

"The question is what is Facebook doing to amplify or expand hate, what is it doing to amplify or expand ethnic violence."

Watch: Facebook whistleblower says social network makes hate ‘unquestionably worse’

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When asked if she thinks the platform is making hate worse, her answer was simply: “Unquestionably – it’s making hate worse.”

Haugen also said she had “no doubt” that a lack of regulation of Facebook would lead to more events like the insurrection in Washington DC on 6 January 2021.

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, defended the platform in March 2021 from criticism following the attacks on the Capitol.

“I think the responsibility lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection," he said.

"Secondarily, also with the people who spread that content, including the president but others as well, with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organise, I think that those people bear the primary responsibility as well.”

When it comes to action, Haugen said time was of the essence.

"Right now, Facebook is closing the door on us being able to act,” she said.

“We have a slight window of time to regain people control over AI - we have to take advantage of this moment.”

 Mark Zuckerberg, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, gives virtual testimony before the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce joint hearing titled,
Mark Zuckerberg gives virtual testimony before US government committees on social media's role in promoting extremism and misinformation (PA Images)

Later on, she said: "You need to do segmented analysis. Because the median experience on Facebook is a pretty good experience.

"The real danger, is that 20% of the population has a horrible experience, or an experience that is dangerous."

At the start of October, Haugen accused Facebook of putting “astronomical profits” before people.

Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer criticised what he called "dangerous algorithms" on platforms like Facebook and Instagram for fuelling extremism.

“The damage caused by harmful content online is worse than ever," he said.

Haugen's whistleblower’s testimony comes as part of the discussion on the draft of the Online Safety Bill.

The bill has been proposed by the government to protect children online, as well as to remove websites or content on social media that is harmful for adults and children.

The legislation has been controversial, with some arguing that it risks edging into censorship, or that poses a threat to freedom of expression.

However, campaigners say it is key to tackle the rise of hatred and extremism online.

Watch: What is the Online Safety Bill and why are some people worried about it?