Who is Facebook whistleblower Frances Hagen and what she told US Senate; how Mark Zuckerberg reacted
Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who recently made the most damaging revelations about Facebook, said she wants to save the social media platform and not foment hatred. Testifying before the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on October 5, Haugen said Facebook’s choices were “disastrous” for children, public safety, privacy and democracy.
“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said.
“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes as they have put their astronomical profits before people,” she added. Her testimony comes a week after the Senate questioned Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis about the social media platform’s negative impact on children and teens.
While Davis failed to answer questions directly, Haugen was more forthcoming with the information. Who is Frances Haugen? Haugen, 37, is an electrical and computer engineer who graduated from Olin College.
She was born and raised in Iowa. Her father is a doctor, while her mother gave up her career in academics to become an episcopalian priest. Haugen holds an MBA from Harvard.
Prior to joining Facebook, Haugen worked with Alphabet Inc’s Google, Pinterest Inc and other social networks. She specialises in designing algorithms and tools for social media platforms that determine what content should be served to the user. What did Haugen do at Facebook?
Haugen worked as a product manager at Facebook on the civic integrity team.
The team focused on issues related to elections worldwide. The team played a key role in investigating how the social media platform could spread political falsehoods, stoke violence and be abused by malicious governments. The group was disbanded in 2020.
What did Haugen’s documents reveal?
Haugen quit Facebook after the January 6 Capitol Hill riots this year. However, before leaving the company, she had copied internal memos and documents, which she shared with The Wall Street Journal. In the series of revelations, Haugen produced documents that showed how Facebook favoured and treated the elite differently and how the company’s algorithms fostered discord and was used by drug cartels and human traffickers openly. It also revealed that Facebook had knowingly excited outrage on its site through an algorithm change in 2018 that could have potentially fuelled violence at the US Capitol on January 6.
Reacting to the allegations, Facebook said: “Hosting hateful or harmful content is bad for our community, bad for advertisers, and ultimately, bad for our business.” Her suggestions to the Senate Speaking to the Senate, Haugen suggested that Facebook hire more people to audit and guide the content across the social media platform.
Her team, which had around 200 people, was under-resourced and finally dissolved in 2020. She produced documents, building a case on how algorithms have been underperforming. She also spoke of “engagement-based ranking” and how a computer code chooses what content to produce before the user.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen said in an interview to CBS. “Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.” Unlike the 2018 revelations about Cambridge Analytica when Facebook was only fined, lawmakers are not likely to take these allegations lightly. The US has recently introduced five antitrust bills targeting Big Tech.
Haugen also approached the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleging that Facebook lied to its shareholders about the impact of algorithms. When Zuckerberg finally spoke After posting videos of his family sailing vacation even as the controversy raged, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg finally made his public comments on the matter on October 5 afternoon.
In a Facebook post, he acknowledged the difficulty in how children use social media, highlighted the importance of the company’s research into tough issues and reiterated calls for more regulation of the industry. However, he shot back with, “many of the claims don’t make any sense.” Zuckerberg wrote: “I think most of us just don’t recognise the false picture of the company that is being painted.” Meanwhile, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg continues to keep her counsel.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)
First Published: Oct 06, 2021, 05:43 PM IST
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