Facebook and its subsidiary companies Whatsapp and Instagram went down on Tuesday and while small businesses and the larger business of Facebook suffered, for many it was seen as a mild relief from the onslaught of social media information that we have all become accustomed to.
The reaction speaks to the feeling that we all share that social media is probably bad for us — now, a Facebook whistleblower has confirmed just how bad it is.
Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen has testified at the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection that the social network harms children, fuels division in society, and that top executives are aware of the issues but value profit over public safety.
“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said.
“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.”
Haugen accused the company of being aware of apparent harm to some teens from Instagram and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.
For anyone who has seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, the news will come as little surprise. In the film, former social media workers speak to the fact that they won’t let their own children use their sites because of the harms it can cause to identity and mental health.
The documentary also discusses the fact that technology and insight from the gambling industry is built into the algorithms of social media websites to keep users engaged.
Haugen said Facebook has acknowledged that integrity controls are essential for its users to limit their engagement but that those proposed controls were abandoned.
Having worked on the algorithms during her time at Facebook, Haugen said that keeping users engaged was vital to the platform and that those engagements driven by anger and division were the most valuable to the site.
This operating structure within the social media giant she claims is partially to blame for the US Capitol insurrection mounted by supporters of Donald Trump in January.
She has also claimed that Facebook’s internal research has shown that the company amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest, but refuses to share that information with outsiders and governments.
“The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages,” she said.
At the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal, agreed with Haugen’s assessment, saying that Facebook values profit over the wellbeing of its users and that of democracy.
“It has profited off spreading misinformation and disinformation and sowing hate,” he said.
“Facebook’s answers to Facebook’s destructive impact always seems to be more Facebook, we need more Facebook — which means more pain, and more money for Facebook.”
Haugen argued that governments around the world need to step in and regulate social media platforms to prevent the spread of hatred, division, and mental health issues.