Facebook whistleblower tells Congress that divisive content is rewarded

Views from left and right clashed at times but all agreed that Facebook needs policing

Frances Haugen used her time to urge leaders to hold Facebook accountable for the division and harm the social media site has brought upon the world. Bloomberg
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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and others spoke before a bipartisan US congressional panel on Wednesday regarding legislation the body is currently considering that would put guardrails on the tech industry and social content.

Ms Haugen, who was peppered with the most questions from the panel, used her time to urge leaders to hold her former employer accountable for the division and harm the social media site has brought upon the world.

A former data scientist at Facebook, Ms Haugen leaked internal company documents in October showing management’s disregard for the dissemination of hate speech, racist rhetoric and misinformation. Putting profit over safety, they encouraged and rewarded incendiary content, Ms Haugen said.

“Let's imagine you encountered a piece of content that was actively defaming a group that you belong to. It could be Christians; it could be Muslims. It could be anyone,” said Ms Haugen.

“If that post causes controversy in the comments, it'll get blasted out to those people's friends, even if they didn't follow that group. And so the most offensive content, the most extreme content gets the most distribution.”

She said that Facebook’s algorithms are specifically designed to sow such division and that studies show that users are more likely to create content when they are angered. More content means more time spent on the platform, which yields more profit.

Leaked documents support Ms Haugen’s claims and showed that the platform, which changed its name to Meta in October, repeatedly chose profitability over safety.

“Facebook has known since 2018 that the choices that they made around design of the newsfeed algorithm were, while increasing the amount of content consumed, increasing the length of sessions, that it was providing hyper-amplification for the worst ideas,” said Ms Haugen.

Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights group Colour of Change, also appeared before the body and said that it is not only Facebook that needs accountability, but corporations like Amazon, Apple and Google as well.

“[They] maintain near total control over all three areas of online life: online commerce, online content and online environments for social connection. To keep control, they lie about the effects of their products, no matter who gets hurt,” said Mr Robinson.

Mark Zuckerberg has lied to me personally, more than once. It’s time to make the truth louder and more influential than their lies, but to skip the part where we wait 40 years to do it.”

Meta pushed back against any wrongdoing claimed by Ms Haugen and denied the assertions that their algorithms fan the flames of hatred.

“What we need is a set of updated rules for the internet set by Congress that companies should follow, which is why we've been asking for this for nearly three years,” Meta said in a statement.

You gotta fight for your right

Conservatives argue that voices on the right are more likely to fall victim to cancel culture and censorship through social media sites like Facebook and apps like Twitter.

The ranking Republican member of the committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, grilled Ms Haugen over the protections allowed Facebook users under the First Amendment, repeatedly demanding a yes or no answer.

“I believe that we should have fact checks included along with content,” said Ms Haugen.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Ms Rodgers said.

Ms Rodgers said that many Americans have lost trust in big tech because “they are arbitrarily censoring speech that they don't agree with and it seems like the censorship is in one direction: against the conservative content".

She then turned her attention to Kara Frederick of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, for backup.

Ms Frederick, also a former Facebook employee, called for greater transparency, especially when it comes to policing the sharing of information, even it is proven false or hate baiting, pointing to President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Ukraine on multiple occasions.

“This is huge and in July, Jen Psaki and the surgeon general, they got up on the podium, they spoke from the White House with the imprimatur of the state and they said, ‘We are directly communicating with Facebook and we have pointed out specific posts specific accounts that we want them to take off the platform.’ Within a month, all of those accounts and those users that was opposed to them, in fact, were gone,” said Ms Frederick.

She did not specify or clarify the content of the posts.

Ms Frederick said that Google stifled conservative leaning outlets like The Daily Caller, Breitbart and The Federalist during the 2020 election season, with Breitbart search visibility shrinking by 99 per cent compared to the 2016 election cycle.

Kara Frederick of the Heritage Foundation, also a former Facebook employee, called for greater transparency, especially when it comes to policing the sharing of information. AP

“Despite what the new Twitter CEO might think, American lawmakers have a duty to protect and defend the rights given to us by God and enshrined in our constitution by the founders, rights that specific tech companies, in conjunction with the government, are actively and deliberately eroding,” she said.

Republican Jeff Duncan told the assembly that left-leaning tech companies far too often side with liberal Democrats in an “onslaught” on conservative views.

“Social media platforms need to check themselves and understand that they're not gods with a little 'g'," said Mr Duncan.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 10:12 PM
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