Skip to main content

Facebook ‘Operating in the Shadows,’ Says Whistleblower, Lawmakers Demand Probes | November 2021

November 2021 | Volume 13, Issue 4


Watch the video and read the full article on Reuters.

According to the article, U.S. lawmakers pounded Facebook recently, accusing CEO Mark Zuckerberg of pushing for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety, and they demanded regulators investigate whistleblower accusations that the social media company harms children’s health and stokes divisions.

Zuckerberg, hours later in a public Facebook post, defended the company, saying the accusations were at odds with Facebook's goals.

"The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical," he wrote. "We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don't want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don't know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed."

During a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, whistleblower Frances Haugen called for transparency about how Facebook entices users to keep scrolling, creating ample opportunity for advertisers to reach them.

"As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable," said Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook's civic misinformation team. She left the nearly $1 trillion company with tens of thousands of confidential documents.

"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," Haugen said.

In an era when bipartisanship is rare in Washington, lawmakers from both parties excoriated the company, illustrating the rising anger in Congress with Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said he was concerned how Facebook and subsidiaries like Instagram affected the mental health of children. "We're going to look back 20 years from now and all of us are going to be like, 'What the hell were we thinking?'"

Haugen revealed she was the person who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram's harm to teenage girls. She compared the social media services to addictive substances like tobacco and opioids.

Panel chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Facebook knew that its products were addictive. "Tech now faces that big tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth," he said.

He called for Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook.

"Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said after the hearing that he would want to ask Zuckerberg why he rejected recommendations to make products safer for users.

Zuckerberg, in his post, said Facebook would not stop researching its societal impact. But he wrote that Congress needed to update rules to make clear the legal age for teens to use internet services, how to verify their ages and where to "balance teens' privacy while giving parents visibility into their activity."

Coming a day after Facebook suffered an hours-long outage, Haugen pointed to the outage in her testimony: "For more than five hours Facebook wasn't used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies."

As lawmakers criticized Facebook, the company's spokespeople fired back on Twitter and in statements, arguing that Haugen did not work directly on some of the topics being raised.

"We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about," Facebook spokeswoman Lena Pietsch said.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, accused Facebook of turning a blind eye to children below age 13 on its services. "It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users," she said.

Antigone Davis, Facebook's global head of safety, recently defended the company in front of Congress and said that it was seeking to release additional internal studies in an effort to be more transparent about its findings.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Commerce Committee, said she would write Facebook to insist that it not delete documents related to Myanmar's persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya. An aide said she would ask for broader retention of documents.

A U.S. federal judge last month had ordered Facebook to release records of accounts connected to anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar that the social media company had shut down.

Haugen said she would encourage "oversight and public scrutiny" into Facebook's content recommendation algorithms and their consequences. She suggested creating a dedicated body within the federal government to oversee social media companies.

Blumenthal said he might want to hold an additional hearing to discuss national security issues related to Facebook.

Haugen said Facebook had also done too little to prevent violence.

Facebook was used by people planning mass killings in Myanmar and the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who were determined to toss out the 2020 election results.

Senator Edward Markey, speaking to the absent Zuckerberg, said during the hearing: "Your time of invading our privacy and preying on children is over. Congress will be taking action."

Throughout the hearing lawmakers referred to Zuckerberg as going sailing instead of facing his responsibilities. The CEO this weekend posted a video taken with the company's new smart glasses of his wife in a boat.

Discussion Questions

1.    As indicated in the article, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen claims the company is “operating in the shadows,” hiding its research from public scrutiny. If true, is this unethical? Is it illegal?

Based on information currently available to your author, there is nothing illegal per se regarding Facebook’s activities; however, ethical questions do remain, hopefully to be answered through public inquiry (both from the public-at-large and congressional inquiry.)

2.    In this case, Facebook whistleblower Haugen testified before the United States Congress. What is the practical import (if any) of testifying before Congress? Explain your response?

Haugen’s testimony before the U.S. Congress could result in greater government regulation of Facebook to address the concerns identified in this article. Currently, Haugen is testifying before the British Parliament, so Facebook could soon be subject to greater government scrutiny and regulation of its practices, both nationally and internationally.

3.    In your opinion, should the U.S. government more closely regulate Facebook? If so, why, and in what specific way(s)?

This is an opinion question, so student response may vary. In your author’s opinion, the U.S. government and government authorities throughout the world should more closely regulate Facebook, particularly in the areas of user disinformation affecting elections and child safety. Facebook could potentially be more closely regulated as a public utility (more specifically, a standard means of communication) and as a monopoly (or near-monopoly) over social media.