by Rafaela Prifti
A data scientist who emerged as the Facebook whistleblower on Sunday says that whenever there was a conflict between the public good and the company, the social media giant chose its own interests.
Frances Haugen is testifying before Congress today after revealing internal documents of the company’s own research showing it magnifies hate and misinformation. By coming forward, she hopes the government will put regulations in place to govern the company’s activities through strict auditing and guidance, she says. She said Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last year, alleging that modification contributed to the deadly Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
Post-election, the company dissolved the civic integrity unit, which Haugen said was the moment she realized that there was no will “to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”
On Monday Facebook and its family of apps went down at the same time. Users reported that Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Oculus began displaying error messages shortly before noon Eastern time. For more than five hours, the sites were not functioning, according to Downdetector, which monitors web traffic and site activity.
Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, posted on Twitter, “We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products. We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”
Security experts noted that although technology outages are not uncommon, it is very unusual for so many apps to go down at the same time. Two years ago Facebook experienced a 24 hour outage due to a technical error. The cause of yesterday’s incident remains unclear.
Facebook has already been dealing with plenty of scrutiny over election misinformation, public health and safety. The former Facebook product manager who quit the company in May, has provided copies of tens of thousands of pages of internal research and documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and lawmakers and has distributed them to the Wall Street Journal and other news media. The documents revealed what many suspected but couldn’t prove: Facebook created more lenient secret rules for elite users, and knowingly amped up outrage on its main site through an algorithm change in 2018.
Despite Facebook claims of putting real resources into these services, the civic integrity unit of the company led by Haugen only employed 200 people, and was dissolved by Facebook management, post election.
Regulators have been unable to deal with Facebook up to now. Haugen’s suggestions for moving forward include more auditing and guidance content across the platform. US lawmakers recently have introduced five antitrust bills targeting the power of Big Tech.
With Haugen is speaking publicly, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have not made any statements. That is more alarming for investors considering that Haugen has reached out to the SEC with the claim that Facebook effectively lied to shareholders about the impact of its algorithms. Documents reveal that Facebook knew of the harms that its services were causing.
Today’s Senate hearing comes after nearly three months of scrutiny for Facebook. Over the summer, the Biden administration and Facebook argued over the platform’s role in allowing COVID-19 misinformation to spread. At issue are algorithms that govern what shows up on users’ news feeds, favoring hateful content because it is more engaging hence more profitable. Haugen said a 2018 change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.