Ex-employee plunges Facebook into deep crisis with revelations
An ex-employee has plunged Facebook into its most serious crisis since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The 37-year-old Frances Haugen provided key information for a series of articles in the "Wall Street Journal", after which Facebook came under considerable political pressure in the USA.
Among other things, the article dealt with the impact of the photo service Instagram on young users. Haugen revealed herself as a whistleblower for the first time in interviews published on Sunday. She is due to testify in the US Senate on Tuesday.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: Negative effects ignored
Haugen told the Wall Street Journal that she had been frustrated because Facebook was not sufficiently open about the fact that the online network could do harm. Part of her job at Facebook, which she left in May after about two years, was to fight election meddling. However, she quickly felt that her team had too few resources to make a difference.
She also said her impression was that Facebook had continued to focus on growth, even though the company had been aware of negative effects of the platform on users. "There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen said on "60 Minutes". And Facebook had chosen over and over again to optimise business for its own interests.
Among the series of reports in the Wall Street Journal in recent weeks, the article about internal research into the influence of Instagram on young users was particularly hard-hitting. Among other things, a report by Facebook researchers stated that Instagram increases dissatisfaction with one's own body among many teenagers - especially girls. This causes eating disorders and depression.
According to the report, Facebook pointed out that further data from the same studies showed that teenagers found other topics helpful. Nevertheless, the online network last week shelved plans for an Instagram version for ten to twelve-year-olds.
Currently, children aged 13 and older are allowed to use Instagram. However, many give the wrong date of birth when registering. Facebook said it wanted to address this problem with "Instagram Kids". But after a hearing in the US Senate, it became clear that this would be politically difficult to implement.
Comparisons with tobacco industry
Antigone Davis, the manager responsible for user safety, did not get through to the senators with her relativising explanations. Democrat Ed Markey compared the online network's approach, especially with Instagram, to the irresponsible actions of the tobacco industry. "Instagram is that first cigarette of childhood" that is designed to get teenagers hooked early and end up endangering their health, Markey said, among other things. "Facebook is acting like the big tobacco companies: they're distributing a product that they know is harmful to young people's health."
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and top executive Sheryl Sandberg, who is responsible for operations, have not yet commented on the controversy.
As became known on Sunday, Haugen contacted the "Wall Street Journal" as early as December last year, after her department was dissolved. According to her own account, she was surprised to find various studies on the influence on users, which had been accessible to practically all employees in the online network's internal communication platform. She had collected such material until she left Facebook in the spring. Haugens had moved to Puerto Rico during the pandemic - and the human resources department had told her that this would not be accepted as a remote job.
"The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and triggering ethnic violence around the world," she told "60 Minutes".
Haugen applied to US authorities for whistleblower protection
A Facebook spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday after Haugen's remarks that the online network tries to strike a balance every day between the right of billions of people to free speech and a safe environment for users. Haugen officially applied to US authorities for protection as a whistleblower - the name given to employees who want to expose wrongdoing by passing on information. At the same time, top manager Guy Rosen emphasised that Facebook can now filter out hate speech down to 0.05 per cent of such posts even before they reach users.
It is clear that Facebook is under more pressure, especially in US politics, than at any time since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. At the time, it had become known that years before, a data analysis company had been able to tap information from millions of users without their knowledge. It was not actually the most serious data protection misstep that had happened at Facebook up to that point - but it was the straw that broke the camel's back.