Facebook is hardly a newcomer to Capitol Hill. Its executives, as well as other experts on the business, have been summoned for hearings many times in the midst of the social media giant’s multiple crises. However, witness Frances Haugen’s testimony during Tuesday’s hearing stood out.
The former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower detailed her vast knowledge of the company’s internal workings to the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, citing her previous work as well as the thousands of pages of internal documents she reviewed and shared with lawmakers.
She also described the technological workings of Facebook’s platforms in a professional and straightforward manner, giving real-world instances of the damages they may create.
According to her, Facebook’s products “hurt children, promote divisiveness, and undermine our democracy,” and prioritize profit above moral duty. Despite her harsh criticism of Facebook, Haugen remained constructive and even optimistic.
“These problems are solvable. A safer, free speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible,” Haugen said. “Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own. … Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is causing.”
The meeting took place at a time when Facebook is already under increased regulatory scrutiny and demands to split up the corporation. Indeed, condemnation of the corporation is a rare source of bipartisan accord among legislators, and her testimony this week may only add to the growing consensus that Facebook must be reined in via legislation.
Members of the panel were obviously persuaded by Haugen’s testimony, who repeatedly hailed her as a hero and promised to attempt to protect her from any retaliation by Facebook (FB). They made it obvious that they wanted her back for further testimony, and that they may call in Zuckerberg for his own hearing to answer.
“You are a twenty-first century American hero,” Senator Ed Markey told her. “Our nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude for the courage you’re showing here today.”
Unlike other Facebook officials who have testified in front of Congress, Haugen did not seem to conceal facts in order to preserve the company’s image. Moreover, unlike Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica data analyst who exposed Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica issue, Haugen was able to rely on expertise working inside Facebook.
Furthermore, while Haugen was working as a member of Facebook’s civic integrity team to address the company’s problems, Wylie was actively engaged in the problematic work Cambridge Analytica performed with Facebook’s data.
Haugen used her vast expertise in technology to explain and criticize how Facebook’s platforms operate. Before joining Facebook, Haugen worked at Google (GOOGL GOOGLE), Pinterest (PINS), Yelp (YELP), and the dating service Hinge, after studying electrical and computer engineering and earning an MBA at Harvard.
According to her evidence, she specializes in “algorithmic product management” and has worked on various ranking algorithms comparable to the one Facebook employs to arrange its main newsfeed.
Haugen offered specific suggestions for how Facebook could change its platforms — or how authorities may establish legislation to compel it to do so — such as shifting away from algorithms that rank content based on engagement and popularity-based metrics from Instagram, such as likes and comments.
It was nice to hear anything other than the typical grandstanding that comes with more combative Facebook-related hearings, which generally degenerate into arguments about censorship, prejudice, and disinformation.
Rather of focusing on disagreements about how Facebook should manage various kinds of material, Haugen focused on the algorithms that expose such content and how they function.
Facebook attempted to undermine Haugen many times before, during, and after her testimony.
During the hearing, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone tweeted: “Just pointing out that @FrancesHaugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or study these problems and has no direct knowledge of the subject from her job at Facebook.” Following the hearing, the business issued a statement in which it attempted to depict her as an employee with limited tenure, no direct reports, or high-level participation, and said that she testified on a topic in which she had no role.
In an interview with CNN following the hearing, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s director of global policy management, claimed there were “mischaracterizations” of the papers Haugen referred to during the hearing, calling them “stolen documents.”
Late Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticized the testimony in a 1,316-word statement on his Facebook page. Zuckerberg said that the testimony as a whole painted a “false picture of the company,” and that internet companies “should develop experiences that fulfill” the needs of young people “while also keeping them safe.”
During her testimony, Haugen repeatedly admitted that she did not work directly on kid safety concerns, instead citing material she acquired from Facebook’s own internal research papers, which she said were “freely available to anyone in the company.” Haugen also acknowledged when a topic was outside her area of expertise and refused to address it.
Those present at the hearing were unimpressed by Facebook’s early attempts to exclude Haugen. “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,” Senator Marsha Blackburn said during the hearing.
Subcommittee Chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters after the hearing that Haugen’s comments were “compelling” and “credible.”
“Frances Haugen wants to fix Facebook, not burn it to the ground,” Blumenthal added.
Indeed, Haugen’s credibility as a witness may be one of her most valuable assets – she repeatedly told legislators that she was there because she believes in Facebook’s potential for good, provided the corporation can solve its severe problems. Haugen even said that if given the opportunity, she would return to work for Facebook. She has said that she is opposed to breaking up Facebook, instead stressing collaborative solutions with Congress, since “these systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up.”
Haugen proposed that Congress allow Facebook to “declare moral bankruptcy and we can figure out how to fix these things together.” When asked to define “moral bankruptcy,” Haugen stated she envisioned a procedure similar to financial bankruptcy in which there is a “mechanism” to “forgive them” and “move on.”
“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.
This is unlikely to be Haugen’s final appearance before Congress. During the hearing, she said that her experience at Facebook working on counterespionage problems caused her “strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today.”
These national security issues, according to Blumenthal, may be the topic of a future subcommittee hearing.