Facebook leaks: app accused of putting profits before safety

Oct 11, 2021 | attention economy, tech ethics

A Facebook whistleblower, whose revelations were published in the Wall Street Journal in September, has revealed her identity. Frances Haugen is a 37-year-old data expert from Iowa, has a degree in computer engineering, and graduated from Harvard with a master’s in business. Haugen formerly worked at Google, Pinterest and Yelp, before being hired at Facebook. She spoke to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee in Washington on Tuesday at a hearing about Facebook’s Consumer Protection – or lack thereof. Haugen’s testimony at the hearing focused primarily on the content of her Facebook leaks: the damaging effects of Facebook and its associated apps on children, stating that kids as young as eight are targeted by the app.

What were Haugen’s main revelations about Facebook?

Haugen claimed in her testimony that the company:

  • Intentionally targets teenagers and children – Haugen exposed Facebook’s awareness of its systems leading teens to anorexia-related content and detrimentally affecting mental health.
  • Puts “astronomical profits before people”.
  • Is destabilising democracies.
  • And that Founder and Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is directly at fault.

“Today’s testimony from Frances Haugen is a catalyst for change. The time for action is now.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar

Speaking to CBS 60 Minutes, Haugen stated “Facebook has realised that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money.” In her “wide-ranging” testimony, Facebook’s former employee explained that there aren’t enough staff to ensure that the platform is safe, and was “literally fanning” ethnic violence in developing countries. Additionally, Haugen mentioned Instagram, another app owned by Facebook, comparing its addictive nature to cigarettes for under-18s.

Haugen also identified that although Facebook’s leaders know how to make their apps safer, they won’t make the changes because they put their profits before people. She argued that Facebook was “buying its profits with our safety.” Indeed, in 2020, Facebook reported a net income of over £21bn ($29bn).

A bad week for Mark Zuckerberg

Haugen’s detrimental revelations have come after an outage on Monday which brought down Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – the 3.5 billion monthly active users across the platforms could not post, like, message or scroll for over five hours. Haugen alluded to the outage during the conference, claiming that during the outage period, Facebook “wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilise democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”

Facebook leaks
Screenshots from the leaked internal Facebook research documents on Instagram

What’s the solution?

At the hearing, Haugen offered some examples of ways Facebook could improve site safety, and there have been calls for regulations following her testimony. Again, she compared the site to the tobacco industry, arguing that Facebook too should be “subject to government action”, having now been outed for hiding the harm it causes. Haugen also urged lawmakers to force Facebook to be more transparent, by sharing internal information and research, and removing their influential algorithms – instead, ranking the Facebook News Feed chronologically.

“With greater transparency, we can build sensible rules and standards to address consumer harms, illegal content, data protection, anticompetitive practises, algorithmic systems and more.”

Frances Haugen

Facebook has maintained that the leaks are “misleading“, and are deliberately ignoring positive data gathered from the company’s own research on their audience. However, at the end of the week in which Frances Haugen delivered the testimony accompanying her Facebook leaks, the company announced a spate of new product features designed, it says, to make its apps safer for children and young people. Cynical observers might say this is too little, too late.