Facebook whistleblower asks Congress to regulate tech giant’s influence on users

Facebook is under fire Tuesday following testimony by a former employee before a U.S. Senate committee. Frances Haugen alleged the company too frequently turns a blind eye to potential harm for the sake of profit. Facebook denied that in statements to the PBS Newshour and said it is working to make its platforms safer. William Brangham has our report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, Facebook is under fire tonight following testimony by a former employee before a U.S. Senate committee. She alleges the company too frequently turns a blind eye to potential harm for the sake of profit.

    Facebook denied that in statements to the "NewsHour," and said it is working to make its platforms safer.

    William Brangham has our report.

  • Frances Haugen, Former Facebook Product Manager:

    I'm here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.

  • William Brangham:

    Armed with a trove of internal company documents, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen implored senators to rein in the social media giant.

  • Frances Haugen:

    The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes, because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won't solve this crisis without your help.

  • William Brangham:

    Haugen appeared before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection.

    The hearing centered on how Facebook, and especially its photo-sharing app, Instagram, targets and impacts children, particularly teenagers.

  • Frances Haugen:

    Kids who are bullied on Instagram, the bullying follows them home. It follows them into their bedrooms. The last thing they see before they go to bed at night is someone being cruel to them, or the first thing they see in the morning is someone being cruel to them.

  • William Brangham:

    Haugen said Facebook's own internal research proved that its products have negative impacts on kids, including that, for one in three teenage girls, Instagram makes negative body issues worse.

  • Frances Haugen:

    Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content.

  • William Brangham:

    In an exchange with Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, she pointed to the scale of the problem for teens.

  • Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK):

    We're going to look back 20 years from now and all of us are going to be like, what in the hell were we thinking when we recognize the damage that it's done to a generation of kids. Do you agree with that, Ms. Haugen?

  • Frances Haugen:

    When Facebook made statements — has made statements in the past about how much benefit Instagram is providing to kids' mental health, like kids are connecting who were once alone, what I am so surprised about that is, if Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years?

    No. We have seen escalating…

  • Sen. Dan Sullivan:

    We have seen the opposite, right?

  • Frances Haugen:

    We have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers.

  • William Brangham:

    For its part, Facebook has rejected these criticisms, and says its internal research about Instagram has been taken out of context.

    Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said on Twitter today that Frances Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues, and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook.

    But, last week, amid criticism in response to some of these revelations, Facebook paused a plan for a new Instagram kids feature for those under the age of 13. Haugen resigned from Facebook in April, fed up, she said, with the company's inaction.

    Today, she laid ultimate responsibility on Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

  • Frances Haugen:

    In the end, the buck stops with Mark. There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.

    We are responsible for the organizations we build. Mark has built an organization that is very metrics-driven, that is — it is intended to be flat. There is no unilateral responsibility. The metrics make the decision.

    Unfortunately, that itself is a decision. And in the end, if he is the CEO and the chairman of Facebook, he is responsible for those decisions.

  • William Brangham:

    Throughout the hearing, Facebook came under bipartisan scrutiny, as the senators found rare common ground criticizing the social media juggernaut.

  • Sen. Rich Blumenthal (D-CT):

    The damage to self-interest and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation.

  • Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN):

    Facebook is not interested in making significant changes to improve kids' safety on their platforms, at least not when that would result in losing eyeballs on posts or decreasing their ad revenues.

  • William Brangham:

    Facebook also rejects the claims that its endangering its users to maximize profit. In a statement, Facebook's director of policy communications, Lena Pietsch, said: "We have invested heavily in people and technology to keep our platform safe, and have made fighting misinformation and providing authoritative information a priority."

    At the hearing, Haugen didn't recommend breaking up Facebook, but called for increased federal oversight.

  • Frances Haugen:

    If you split Facebook and Instagram apart, it's likely that most advertising dollars will go to Instagram, and Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is altering — like, that is endangering lives around the world. Only, now there won't be money to fund it.

  • William Brangham:

    In the past, Facebook has repeatedly said that it backs smart regulation of social media companies, and today disputed much of Haugen's testimony, pointing out she was a junior employee.

    Facebook's Pietsch said: "We don't agree with her characterization of the many of the issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing. It's time to begin to create standard rules for the Internet."

    While today revealed a clear bipartisan consensus for action, there's no timetable for when that might occur or what shape it might take.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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