Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen tells Congress hearing: 'Tackle the company like Big Tobacco'

·3-min read

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said the harms caused by the social media platform needed to be tackled like the harms caused by the tobacco industry as she testified before a US Senate committee on protecting children online.

Ms Haugen, 37, a former product manager at the social media giant, leaked internal documents to both the Wall Street Journal newspaper and the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

She told Congress: "Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good. Our common good.

"When we realised Big Tobacco was hiding the harms, that caused the government to take action. When we figured out cars were safer with seatbelts, the government took action.

"And when our government learned that opioids were taking lives, the government took action," she said, adding: "I implore you to do the same here today."

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In particular she warned that there was nobody at the company holding Mark Zuckerberg accountable other than himself.

"Mark holds a very unique role in the tech industry in that he holds over 55% of all the voting shares for Facebook. There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled," she said.

In her opening statement she explained she was motivated by her belief that the company's products, including the Facebook and Instagram platforms, "harm children, stoke division, [and] weaken our democracy".

"The company's leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won't make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people. Congressional action is needed," she added.

Following her opening statement, committee chair Senator Blumenthal thanked Ms Haugen and said: "We will do anything and everything to protect and stop any retaliation against you, and any legal action that the company may bring to bear."

The whistleblower had revealed her identity in an interview on CBS's 60 Minutes where she said that Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to combat misinformation which contributed to the US Capitol attack.

The hearing from the US Senate sub-committee on consumer protection will focus on the Wall Street Journal's reportage which it said "revealed troubling insights regarding how Instagram affects teenagers, how it handles children onto the platform, and other consumer protection matters related to Facebook".

"The hearing will provide an opportunity for a Facebook whistleblower to discuss their perspective and experience with the subcommittee, including how to update children's privacy regulations and other laws to protect consumers online," the committee said.

Among Ms Haugen's key warnings was how Facebook optimised its algorithms to increase engagement through discord and arguments, something which benefited the company's revenues.

Facebook has responded to a series of stories published by the Wall Street Journal based on her leaked documents, including one that suggested the company knew Instagram had a negative image on the body-image of teenage girls.

Facebook denied that it "conducts research and then systematically and wilfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company" as it paraphrased the reports.

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