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Whistleblower to Congress: Facebook products harm children and weaken democracy

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Getty Images
In this photo illustration, the Facebook and Instagram apps are seen on the screen of an iPhone. A whistleblower is accusing the social media giant of putting profits over people.

Facebook's products "harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more," Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who leaked tens of thousands of pages of internal documents, will tell lawmakers on Tuesday.

"When we realized tobacco companies were hiding the harms [they] caused, the government took action. When we figured out cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action," she will say, according to her prepared testimony. "I implore you to do the same here."

Haugen will urge lawmakers to take action to rein in Facebook, because, she says, it won't do so on its own. "The company's leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won't make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people," she will say.

Haugen is set to appear before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security starting at 10 a.m. ET. The subcommittee has been examining Facebook and Instagram's impact on users, especially teenagers and children.

The internal research Haugen shared with the press, members of Congress and federal regulators has plunged Facebook into its biggest crisis in years. She leaked a trove of internal research and communications showing the company was aware of the ills of its platforms, including the toxic risks of Instagram to some teenage girls' mental health and the prevalence of drug cartels and human traffickers on its apps. They formed the basis of a blockbuster investigative series by the Wall Street Journal and have fueled anger and investigations in Washington.

On Sunday, Haugen gave a damning interview to CBS's 60 Minutes, in which she accused Facebook of lying to the public and its own investors about the impacts of its platforms.

Her lawyer says she has filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging Facebook misled its shareholders with its public statements about problems including the prevalence of hate speech, how the social network was used leading up to and during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and how its algorithms amplify misinformation.

Haugen spent two years at Facebook working on a team combating political misinformation. She said she grew disillusioned with the company for failing to make its platforms safer if those changes risked its growth.

"As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one. And it will continue to make choices that go against the common good," she will tell Congress.

Facebook disputes Haugen's accusations. It says the reporting on its internal research has mischaracterized its work.

On Monday, Neil Potts, Facebook's vice president of trust and safety policy told NPR's All Things Considered that he "would categorically deny" Haugen's claim that Facebook profits from promoting polarizing and emotionally inflammatory content.

"I think that accusation is just a bit unfounded," Potts said. "At Facebook, what we are designing our products to do is to increase meaningful experiences, so whether those are meaningful social interactions...or having just positive social experience on a platform, that is what we want the product ultimately to provide. That makes an environment where people will come to Facebook, where they will come to Instagram, and have a better time, and that's really our bottom line."

But Haugen's claims and the extensive set of documents she copied before leaving Facebook have caught the attention of the public — and of powerful critics in Washington.

Last week, the same Senate panel grilled a Facebook official about what her whistleblowing revealed. They accused the company of hiding what it knew about how its products can hurt people, particularly children.

"Facebook is running scared," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the subcommittee's ranking member, plans to say in her opening remarks at Tuesday's hearing. "They know that – in their words – 'young adults are less active and less engaged on Facebook' and that they are running out of teens to add to Instagram...They are also studying younger and younger kids so they can market to them."

Congress's role, she will say, is to provide the oversight Haugen says the company and CEO Mark Zuckerberg need.

"By shining a light on Mr. Zuckerberg and company's conduct, we will help hold them accountable," Blackburn will say.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters
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