Facebook to take center stage at whistleblower hearing

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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to give highly anticipated testimony to a Senate panel on Tuesday that the Silicon Valley giant ignored internal warnings about misinformation and dangerous content.

Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, came public for the first time in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday night, which expanded on the bombshell series of internal documents she leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

“The choices being made by Facebook’s leadership are a huge problem — for children, for public safety, for democracy — that is why I came forward. And let’s be clear: it doesn’t have to be this way. We are here today because of deliberate choices Facebook has made,” Haugen will say, according to a copy of her testimony.

Haugen’s interview led to a new round of difficult headlines for Facebook, which on Monday was also enduring a massive outage across its platforms that stretched well into the afternoon.

While Facebook is no stranger to controversy or scrutiny on Capitol Hill, Kyle Taylor, a member of the advocacy group Real Facebook Oversight Board, said Frances’s revelations could be pivotal by validating accusations from activists that Facebook’s leaders knowingly misled about the impact of their products.

“For as long as this has been happening with Facebook, we’ve been stuck by an inability to find out the data, or the true data, and validate whether it’s true or not,” he said. “And what Frances has shown is that they have this data internally, they actively choose not to share it and executives are aware of it. And that’s very worrying. It’s very worrying because it feels like a cover up.”

Democrats are also likely to zero in on how information on Facebook might have contributed to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, when a pro-Trump mob interrupted Congress’s counting of the Electoral College in an effort to overturn the election.

Haugen started working at Facebook in June 2019, following stints at several tech companies including six years at Google in various positions between 2008 and 2014, according to her LinkedIn profile.

She worked on the company’s civic integrity team but said there was a turning point after the 2020 election when the company said it would be “dissolving” the team.

“They basically said, ‘Oh good, we made it through the election. There wasn’t riots. We can get rid of Civic Integrity now,’ ” she told “60 Minutes.”

Facebook vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, pushed back on Haugen’s comments, writing on Twitter that Facebook “did not disband Civic Integrity” but “integrated it into a larger Central Integrity team.”

Posts about the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol on Facebook and other social media platforms have already been a target for lawmakers probing the deadly insurrection. The House committee investigating the attack requested tech companies, including Facebook, turn over records about data as well as company policies about addressing misinformation and extremism.  

But the questions are likely to go well beyond Jan. 6 to how the content on Facebook and Instagram are affecting children, something that is emerging as a rare unifying topic among lawmakers in both parties.

Senators will likely press Haugen on a number of issues highlighted by the leaked documents, including Facebook’s preferential treatment of high-profile users, failure to handle drug cartels exploiting the platform and contribution to coronavirus vaccine misinformation.

“I look forward to Frances’ testimony on Tuesday before my subcommittee, and to future hearings documenting why Facebook and other tech companies must be held accountable—and how we plan to do that. Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself,” subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

Democrats and Republicans will likely disagree on other subjects, as the former have criticized Facebook for not doing more to reduce hate speech and misinformation and the latter have issued claims that social media companies censor information on the right — despite the fact that some of Facebook’s most shared pages come from conservatives.

The company’s market power and allegations of anti-competitive conduct may be brought up as well as lawmakers continue to weigh proposals to revamp antitrust laws.  

“I thank Frances Haugen for coming forward with her brave testimony. I look forward to asking her follow up questions at Tuesday’s Senate hearing,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said in a Monday statement.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee, raised whether Facebook is a monopoly based on the Journal reports at a recent hearing on data privacy.

“[The reports] revealed shocking, absolutely stunning, lapses in Facebook’s ability to protect Facebook consumers, it’s users, from being harmed by using its platforms. This too looks like the behavior of a monopolist — a monopolist that’s so sure its customers have nowhere else to go that it displays a reckless disregard for quality insurance, for its own brand image, and even just being honest with its users about the obvious safety risks it’s subjecting users to, particularly its teenage users,” Lee said.

Facebook vice president of privacy and public policy, Steve Satterfield, responded that the Journal series “misses the mark in terms of what we’re trying to do in the matters that it describes.”

The Federal Trade Commission is pushing forward with its antitrust suit against Facebook that targets previously approved acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram. Facebook responded to the agency’s amended complaint Monday, arguing that the case did not establish a credible case that the company is a social media monopoly.

The tech giant may also face challenges at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Haugen’s lawyers filed at least eight complaints with the SEC comparing the internal research with the information Facebook has put out publicly, Haugen disclosed in the “60 Minutes” interview.

“I think that we’re at the point where if this moment doesn’t finally drive Congress to take action, then what will? And I say that almost a bit frightened to say it — because if it doesn’t, we’re in a really bad state,” Taylor said. 

-Updated at 8:45 a.m.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Capitol riot Facebook Mike Lee

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