Facebook whistleblower testifies in Congress

By Clare Duffy, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes, Samantha Murphy Kelly, Veronica Rocha, Adrienne Vogt and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 6:13 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021
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2:29 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Senators were gripped by Haugen's powerful testimony

From CNN's Donie O'Sullivan

Senators on both sides of the aisle praised former Facebook employee Frances Haugen for her powerful testimony on Capitol Hill today.

In front of a packed press gallery in the Russell Office Building, one lawmaker pointed how meetings of a subcommittee don’t always attract this much attention.

Haugen did not let the senators down – breaking down how platforms like Facebook and Instagram work and cause harm in a way that was accessible and mostly jargon-free.

Hearings on Big Tech can regularly devolve into partisan point-scoring, but Haugen deftly handling lawmakers’ questions – maintaining regulation does not have to mean censorship.

“You mentioned earlier concerns around free speech,” she told GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. “A lot of the things that I advocate for are around changing the mechanisms of amplification, not around picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas."

“What's cool about Haugen's testimony and this hearing is a real focus on amplification and algorithm design and not just censorship and bad info,” Charlie Warzel, a leading technology commentator, tweeted. “It feels like the advancement of the Facebook conversation/critique that a lot of close followers have been hoping for.”

When Haugen’s three hours or so of testimony concluded, she picked up her black backpack and walked calmly for the exit – it is, however, unlikely to be her last time in a hearing room like this.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, suggested the panel may ask her back to share further insights about Instagram’s harms on children and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff indicated yesterday she may be invited to appear before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection to testify on Facebook’s role in it.

Watch here:

1:58 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Whistleblower: Removing likes isn't enough to address teen mental health concerns on Instagram

From CNN's Clare Duffy

Facebook earlier this year gave users on Facebook and Instagram the option to hide public like counts on their posts in an effort to reduce the pressure users feel to gain popularity. But Haugen said this isn’t sufficient to address teen mental health concerns on the platforms. 

Haugen said that based on the internal research she has viewed, “as long as comments are allowed on posts on Instagram, just taking likes off Instagram doesn’t fix the social comparison problem.”

“Teenage girls are smart, they see that Sally is prettier than them, her pictures are really good, she gets tons of comments, she doesn’t get very many comments,” she said. “So I do think we need larger interventions than just removing quantitative measures.”

4:18 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Here's why the whistleblower says she is against breaking up Facebook

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told Senate lawmakers that she is "against the breaking up of Facebook."

For the past few years, there have been mounting calls from regulators in the United States and Europe to break up tech giants like Facebook. Lawmakers, publishers and other groups have criticized Facebook, in particular, for its handling of misinformation, its history of buying or copying rivals, and its data privacy practices, among other issues.

But according to Haugen, breaking up Facebook won't eliminate the potential risks the company poses to society.

The problem lies in the design of algorithms and engagement-based ranking that surface potentially concerning content for users, and the limitations of artificial intelligence to address it, Haugen explained.

"What I'm scared of is that Facebook is the internet for lots of the world. If you go to Africa, the internet is Facebook. If you split Facebook and Instagram apart, it's likely that most advertising dollars would go to Instagram and Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is endangering lives around the world. Only now there won't be [advertising] money to fund it."

Haugen emphasized collaborative solutions with Congress, or else "these systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up."

1:36 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Senator invites Facebook executive to testify on company's practices after tweet criticizing whistleblower

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, brought up a tweet that was posted by Andy Stone, Facebook communications executive, during the hearing.

In the tweet, he said, "Just pointing out the fact 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."

Blackburn responded: "So I will simply say this to Mr. Stone, if Facebook wants to discuss their targeting of children, if they want to discuss their practices, privacy violations, or violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, I am extending to you an invitation to step forward, be sworn in, and testify before this committee."

"We would be pleased to hear from you and welcome your testimony," she added.

More background: Haugen has been transparent about the fact that she did not work on child safety issues at Facebook; she noted in one answer that although she has some knowledge of the issue, she did not work directly on it.

However, Haugen provided extensive internal documentation related to Facebook's research on the topic to lawmakers.

1:32 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Whistleblower: "If Facebook won't protect the kids, we at least need to help the parents"

From CNN Business' Samantha Kelly

Frances Haugen said Facebook's research reveals kids believe they are struggling with issues like body image and bullying alone because their parents can't guide them.

"I'm saddest when I look on Twitter and people blame the parents for these problems with Facebook. They say, 'Just take your kid's phone away.' But the reality is that it's a lot more complicated than that."

She emphasized how parents are facing a new set of challenges that didn't exist when they were growing up.

“Very rarely do you have one of these generational shifts where the generation that leads, like parents who guide their children, have such a different set of experiences that they don't have the context to support their children in a safe way,” she testified. “We need to support parents. If Facebook won't protect the kids, we at least need to help the parents support the kids.”

She added that schools and the National Institutes of Health should provide established information where parents can learn how to better support their kids.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal agreed. “Parents are anguished about this issue. They are hardly uncaring. They need the tools. They need to be empowered.”

12:57 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Whistleblower: "I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today"

From CNN Business' Clare Duffy

Haugen, whose last role at Facebook was as a product manager supporting the company’s counter-espionage team, was asked whether Facebook is used by “authoritarian or terrorist-based leaders” around the world. 

She said such use of the platforms is “definitely” happening, and that Facebook is “very aware” of it.  

“My team directly worked on tracking Chinese participation on the platform, surveilling, say, Uyghur populations, in places around the world. You could actually find the Chinese based on them doing these kinds of things,” Haugen said. “We also saw active participation of, say, the Iran government doing espionage on other state actors.” 

She went on to say that she believes, “Facebook’s consistent understaffing of the counterespionage information operations and counter terrorism teams is a national security issue, and I’m speaking to other parts of Congress about that … I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today.”  

Sen. Richard Blumenthal suggested that these national security concerns could be the subject of a future subcommittee hearing.

1:00 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Whistleblower: Transparency and dissolving an engagement-based ranking system would improve Facebook

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen detailed how the social media platform could become a better environment, saying it could introduce transparency measures and small frictions, and move away from the "dangerous" engagement-based ranking system.

This would recenter the methods of amplification and won't focus not on "picking winners or losers in the marketplace of ideas," she told senators on Tuesday.

"On Twitter, you have to click through on a link before you reshare it. Small actions like that friction don’t require picking good ideas and bad ideas, they just make the platform less twitchy, less reactive. Facebook’s internal research says each one of these small actions, dramatically reduces misinformation, hate speech and violence-inciting content on the platforms," Haugen said.

She advocated for chronologically-ordered content instead.

"I'm a strong proponent of chronological ranking, ordering by time, with a little bit of spammed emotion. Because I think we don't want computers deciding what we focus on, we should have software that is human-scaled, or humans have conversations together, not computers facilitating who we get to hear from," Haugen said.

In addition, she encouraged a privacy-conscious regulatory body working with academics, researchers and government agencies to "synthesize requests for data" because currently, the social media giant is not obligated to disclose any data.

"Even data as simple as what integrity systems exist today and how well do they perform?" she suggested. "Basic actions like transparency would make a huge difference."

What does engagement-based ranking system mean?

Facebook, like other platforms, uses algorithms to amplify or boost content that receives engagement in the form of likes or shares or comments. In Facebook’s view, this helps a user “enjoy” their feed, Haugen explained.

“The dangers of engagement-based ranking are that Facebook knows that content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, a comment or reshare," which aren't necessary for the user's benefit, she added. "It's because they know that other people will produce more content if they get the likes and comments and reshares. They prioritize content in your feed so that you will give little hits of dopamine to your friends so they'll create more content.”

1:00 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

Whistleblower: Facebook should declare "moral bankruptcy" and ask Congress for help

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen said it's time for Facebook to declare "moral bankruptcy" and admit that they have a problem and they need help solving it.

She said that since Facebook is a "closed system" the company has "had the opportunity to hide their problems."

"And like people often do when they can hide their problems, they get in over their heads," Haugen added.

She said that Congress should step in and say to the company, "You don't have to hide these things from us" and "pretend they're not problems."

She believes that Congress should give Facebook the opportunity to "declare moral bankruptcy and we can figure out how to fix these things together."

Asked to clarify what she meant by "moral bankruptcy," Haugen said she envisioned a process like financial bankruptcy where "they admit did something wrong" and there is a "mechanism" to "forgive them" and "move forward."

"Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop that they cannot get out of...they need to admit that they did something wrong and that they need help to solve these problems. And that's what moral bankruptcy is," she said.

12:11 p.m. ET, October 5, 2021

The Senate hearing is back after a short break

From CNN's Samantha Murphy Kelly and Clare Duffy

The Senate hearing with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has resumed.

The former Facebook product manager who worked on civic integrity issues at the company has been facing questions from a Commerce subcommittee about what Facebook-owned Instagram knew about its effects on young users, among other issues.

"I am here today because I believe that Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy," she said during her opening remarks. "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."

She emphasized that she came forward "at great personal risk" because she believes "we still have time to act. But we must act now."

Read more about today's hearing here.