‘A Betrayal of Democracy’: What We Learned From the Facebook Whistleblower Interview
A Facebook whistleblower said that during her time at the company she “became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety, putting people’s lives at risk.”
Frances Haugen, a former product manager who worked on protecting the platform from election interference starting in 2019, revealed her identity as the former employee who leaked tens of thousands of pages of internal research to the Wall Street Journal. She revealed her identity publicly for the first time in a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday night. In the interview, Haugen accused the company of hiding from investors and the public the ways its platform is used to spread hate undermine democracy.
Haugen said that Facebook frequently chooses its own interests over the public’s. “There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money,” Haugen told Scott Pelley.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks, and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’ve seen before,” Haugen, who previously worked at Google, Pinterest, and Yelp, said. “At some point in 2021, I realized I’m going to have to do this in a systemic way, that I’m going to have to get out enough [documents] that no one can question that this is real.”
Instead of reporting those numbers publicly, though, the company “picks metrics that are in its own benefit” when reporting on its efforts. “Right now we have no independent transparency mechanisms that allow us to see what Facebook is doing internally… When Facebook is allowed to do its own homework, it picks metrics that are to its own benefit,” Haugen said.
Facebook turned on safety systems to reduce misinformation on the platform before the election but turned them off afterward, Haugen alleged. “When the election was over, they turned them back off,” she said. “Or they changed the settings to what they were before to prioritize growth over safety.”
“That feels like a betrayal of democracy to me,” she added.
Haugen is far from the only frustrated Facebook employee, she said. According to Haugen, employees were angry after the January 6th attack on the Capitol because the president’s supporters used Facebook — in addition to other social networks — to organize and plan. “Haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” one employee wrote on an internal message board in a post cited by Haugen.
Responding to Haugen’s allegations, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to the Journal: “Every day our teams have to balance protecting the right of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place. We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
In September, Haugen’s attorneys filed at least eight complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission claiming Facebook has hidden from investors internal research about how its product is harmful. Haugen is scheduled to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security on Tuesday.
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