Facebook Making Online Hate Worse, Whistleblower Tells MPs

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has made her second appearance before lawmakers, when she appeared on Monday before the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill.

Haugen’s appearance before British lawmakers came after the former Facebook executive had testified before the US Senate in Washington DC on 5 October, amid allegations that Facebook knew Instagram was harming teenagers.

Haugen left her job at Facebook’s civic integrity unit, but not before she secretly coped internal research documents. She gave the documents first to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which reported on internal research which suggested that Instagram had a harmful effect on teenagers, particularly teen girls.

False picture

And this week the research documents that Haugen ‘took’ from Facebook has been released as the so called ‘Facebook Papers project’.

This is essentially a collaboration among multiple American news organisations, who have worked together to gain access to thousands of pages of internal company documents obtained by Frances Haugen.

They have begun publishing content related to their analysis of the materials on Monday, 25 October.

However Facebook is hitting back hard, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected Frances Haugen’s previous testimony that Facebook puts profits before people’s safety, and said many of her allegations don’t make sense.

He also said that the allegations are painting a “false picture” of Facebook and that her allegations are “just not true.”

Zuckerberg repeated this during the company’s release of its better than expected third quarter results, in which the social networking giant posted a very healthy $9bn (€7.7bn) of profit, up 17 percent from $7.8bn last year.

Revenue meanwhile rose 35 percent from $21.5bn to $29bn.

Zuckerberg addressed the Haugen issue straight away in Facebook’s quarterly earnings call.

“Good faith criticism helps us get better, but my view is that we are seeing a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” Zuckerberg was quoted by CNN as saying. “The reality is that we have an open culture that encourages discussion and research on our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us.”

Haugen’s testimony

So what has Haugen told British MPs when she appeared before the committee on Monday?

During her testimony, Haugen spoke of the “misinformation burden”; Instagram’s impact on teenage girls’ mental health; the desperate need for greater transparency; and how algorithmic feeds are driving hate and violence.

Haugen once again alleged that Facebook’s inaction was due to the platform putting profit before safety, not wanting to sacrifice its growth.

She also said Facebook is “unquestionably making hate worse,” and that its safety teams are under-resourced.

She also alleged that Facebook was unable to police content in multiple languages around the world.

And she questioned Facebook’s Oversight Board, and alleged that Facebook had lied to it.

“Facebook has a strategy of only slowing the platform down once a crisis has begun, rather than as the temperature gets hotter and making the platform safer as it happens”, Haugen reportedly said.

Haugen alleged that “Instagram is about social comparison and about bodies… about people’s lifestyles, and that’s what ends up being worse for kids”.

“I am deeply worried that it may not be possible to make Instagram safe for a 14-year-old, and I sincerely doubt that it is possible to make it safe for a 10-year-old,” she reportedly said.

She also spoke a lot about the harmfulness of engagement-based ranking and AI-focused systems.

“Facebook never set out to prioritise polarising content, it just rose as a side effect of priorities it did take,” she reportedly said, before emphasising the need for greater transparency from social media platforms.

“How will we know when the next danger is looming?,” she said. “Thinking about any tech company that has a large societal impact, we need to be thinking about how we get data out of that company; thinking systematically for large tech companies how we get the information we need to make decisions.”

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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