Facebook comes under stark criticism at whistleblower hearing

Senators piled criticism onto Facebook on Tuesday as a whistleblower accused the company of making choices that put profits over people.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, testified in person before a full Senate Commerce subcommittee panel, urging Congress to hold the tech giant accountable for what she said was the harm it inflicted on children and its refusal to properly police its content.

“Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety. They shouldn’t get a free pass on that because they're paying for their profits right now with our safety,” she said. 

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It is the second in a series of hearings the committee has held since Haugen leaked explosive internal documents to The Wall Street Journal last month. But Haugen’s appearance is drawing more attention to the issues and concerns the company’s critics have long been raising.

Senators lauded Haugen for coming forward. Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyDozens of Democrats call for spending bill to pass 'climate test' Under pressure, Democrats cut back spending House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure MORE (D-Mass.) called her a “21st century hero.” Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharGOP blocks Senate Democrats' revised elections bill Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - Biden holds meetings to resurrect his spending plan MORE (D-Minn.) said Haugen will be the “catalyst” for Congress to take actions on proposals that have been stalled for years. 

“Thank you so much Ms. Haugen, for shedding a light on how Facebook time and time again has put profit over people. When their own research found that more than 13 percent of teen girls say that Instagram made their thoughts of suicide worse, what did they do? They proposed Instagram for kids,” Klobuchar said. 

Facebook has announced a pause on the Instagram for kids platform after the released documents. 

Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat executives to testify at Senate hearing on kids' safety Buttigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' MORE (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the committee, slammed Facebook for not taking enough of a stand against removing underaged accounts. 

“While Facebook says that kids below 13 are not allowed on Facebook or Instagram, we know that they are there – Facebook said they deleted 600,000 accounts recently from kids under 13. How do you get that many underage accounts if you aren’t turning a blind eye to them in the first place?” she said. 

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Haugen’s testimony went beyond calling out the company’s impact on young users.

She said the company’s inability to catch offensive content on its platform is based on the company’s use of artificial intelligence which it has publicly boasted as a solution to combat issues of hate speech and misinformation. 

“The reality is that we've seen from repeated documents within my disclosures, is that Facebook's AI systems only catch a very tiny minority of offending content,” Haugen said during a Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee hearing.  

Haugen said in the “best case scenario” to catch “something like hate speech,” AI will reach about 10 to 20 percent.  

In the case of children, ads promoting content such as drug paraphernalia, Facebook would likely never reach more than 10 to 20 percent of the ads if they “rely on computers and not humans.” 

But Haugen said Facebook has a “deep focus on scale,” meaning taking action cheaply for a “huge number of people.” 

“Which is part of why they rely on AI so much,” she said. 

Haugen said the issue is also underscored by Facebook being “understaffed” to address concerns. 

She said there was a “pattern of behavior" where issues were “so understaffed” that there was discouragement for having better direction. 

In her role on Facebook’s counterespionage team, at any given time the team count only handle about a third of the cases it knew about.

“We know that if we built even a basic detector, we would likely have many more cases,” she said.

Facebook pushed back on Haugen’s testimony and questioned her background on the issues she discussed.

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“Today a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives -- and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question. We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” the company said in a statement

Haugen noted during her testimony that the documents she released and reviewed were available to all within the company, even on topics that didn't pertain to her team.

Facebook’s head of global safety Antigone Davis last week fielded questions from senators about the leaked internal documents during a hearing hosted by the same Senate panel.

Updated at 2:35 p.m.