The Facebook whistleblower who released tens of thousands of pages of internal research and documents indicating the company was aware of various problems caused by its apps, including Instagram’s potential “toxic” effect on teen girls, called on Congress to take action against the social media platform in testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.
Frances Haugen, a 37-year-old former Facebook product manager who worked on civic integrity issues at the company, faced questions from a Commerce subcommittee about what Facebook-owned Instagram knew about its effects on young users, among other issues.
“I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” she said during her opening remarks. “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. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”
She emphasized that she came forward “at great personal risk” because she believes “we still have time to act. But we must act now.”
Haugen’s identity as the Facebook whistleblower was revealed on “60 Minutes” Sunday night. She previously shared a series of documents with regulators and the Wall Street Journal, which published a multi-part investigation showing that Facebook was aware of problems with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the harm caused by Instagram, especially to young girls.
“When we realized tobacco companies were hiding the harms it caused, the government took action,” she said in her opening remarks. “When we figured out cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action. And today, the government is taking action against companies that hid evidence on opioids. I implore you to do the same here.”
In a statement sent to CNN Business after the “60 Minutes” interview, a Facebook spokesperson said, “to suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Facebook is no stranger to scandals, and it’s not the first time the company has been the subject of Congressional hearings. Nor is it the first time Facebook’s public image has been shaken by a whistleblower. But Haugen’s documents and upcoming testimony come amid broader scrutiny of Facebook’s power and data privacy practices, and have already spurred bipartisan criticism of the company’s influence on children. It remains to be seen, however, if it will create momentum for any meaningful regulation.
The testimony also comes after a tumultuous day for the company. Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram went down for about six hours on Monday.
In her testimony, Haugen said, “Yesterday, we saw Facebook get taken off the internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I know that for more than 5 hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”
She added: “It also means that millions of small businesses weren’t able to reach potential customers and countless photos of new babies weren’t joyously celebrated by family and friends around the world. I believe in the potential of Facebook. We can have social media we enjoy, that connects us, without tearing apart our democracy, putting our children in danger and sowing ethnic violence across the world. We can do better.”
Beyond the documents, there’s also the power of Haugen’s personal backstory. She started at Facebook in 2019 after previously working for other prominent tech companies including Google and Pinterest. She spoke with the Wall Street Journal about losing a friendship due to online misinformation and how it impacted the way she thinks about social media. She also told the publication her goal in speaking out isn’t to bring down Facebook but to “save it.”
About a month ago, Haugen reportedly filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the company is hiding research about its shortcomings from investors and the public. She also shared the documents with regulators and the Journal, which published a multi-part investigation showing that Facebook was aware of problems with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the harm caused by Instagram, especially to young girls.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, expressed “heartfelt gratitude” to Haugen for “standing up to one of the most powerful, implacable corporate giants in the history of the world.”
He added: “The damage to self-interest and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation.”
Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, was grilled by members of the same Senate subcommittee last week following the Journal report about the impact its apps have on younger users. Davis, who identified herself as a mother and former teacher, pushed back on the idea that the report was a “bombshell” and did not commit to publicly releasing a full research report, noting potential “privacy considerations.” She said Facebook is “looking for ways to release more research.”
The Journal report, and the renewed pressure from lawmakers in its aftermath, also appeared to force Instagram to rethink its plans to introduce a version of its service for kids under 13. Days before the hearing, Instagram said it would press pause on the project.
“Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself,” Blumenthal said in the statement Sunday. “We must consider stronger oversight, effective protections for children, and tools for parents, among the needed reforms.”
During her testimony, Haugen said,”Congress can change the rules Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is now causing.”
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.