Facebook has been one of the most used social media platforms for a long time. With millions of users, the tech giant is growing big each year. Moreover, the tech giant grew stronger when it bought Instagram and Whatsapp in the past years. However, recently Facebook has come under a harsh light and faced a historic crisis when a whistleblower came forward with some shocking news.
Revelations uncovered by Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, have proved to be the most threatening scandal in Facebook’s history. Moreover, the pressure turned up when Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee.
She gave a clear and descriptive insight on the secretive tech giant and how it harms children, sows division, and undercuts democracy. She said that Facebook does so to gain astronomical profits.
You might remember the controversies that rose in terms of Facebook supporting the rigging in Russia’s 2016 elections. Well, this scandal is even bigger than that. Let’s take a look at why.
- She worked as an insider, giving her more knowledge
After her journey at Google, Yelp, and Pinterest, Haugens worked at Facebook for 2 years. She studied how the platform’s algorithm turned up misinformation and was misused by foreign adversaries.
She told Congress that the tech giant was more focused on its growth than implementing safeguards. Moreover, this action is similar to how the company hid its internal research - on the harms of its products - from the public and government officials.
As a result, Haugen said, more division, harm, lies, threats, and combat took place. Furthermore, in some cases, it has even led to actual violence that led to people losing their lives. All these details, and much more, were copied and shared by Haugens with the lawmakers, regulators, and leading journals.
She said that she realized the devastating truth of working at Facebook: that no one knows what happens inside. Facebook intentionally hides vital information from the public and governments around the world.
It is true that many other whistleblowers have raised concerns about Facebook’s operations, but Haugens is the first one to actually show proof.
What was Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction?
After Haugen’s revelations, Zuckerberg claimed that the company’s internal research has been misinterpreted and taken out of context. He said that it was used to construct a false narrative that we don’t care.
Moreover, he said that he is particularly focused on questions raised on how the company affects children.
- Facebook even targeted young users through Instagram
Instagram, owned by Facebook, has impacted children in a concerning way. Haugen revealed a Facebook study showing that 13.5% of UK’s teen girls said that their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after using Instagram.
Another study showed that 17% of teen girls said that their eating disorders got worse after using Instagram. Furthermore, 32% of teen girls said that Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies.
Subcommittee Chair Richard Blumenthal said that Facebook exploits teens using its powerful algorithms and amplifies their insecurities. Also, Haugen told Congress that Facebook never uncovered to external lawmakers and researchers how the company affected children’s safety and health.
“Facebook chooses to mislead and misdirect,” said Haugen. “It has not earned our blind faith,” she added.
- Democrats and Republicans stand united on Facebook’s regulation
During the hearing, Republican Senator Jerry Moran said to Blumenthal that they should put their differences aside to tackle the common goal of reigning in Facebook.
But how could this be done? Haugen has requested lawmakers to check the algorithms that control the popular features such as the main feeds on Instagram and Facebook.
The chronological order is long forgotten. Now the posts are given preference based on the engagement and number of likes or comments they receive. As a result, more sensational content is spread - the one with rage, hate, misinformation, etc.
She also added that this type of content is exposing teens to more anorexia content, pulling apart families. Whereas in places like Ethiopia, it is literally causing ethnic violence.
Some legal responses to control such content could include passing a national privacy law and strengthening the safeguards for online children.
According to Haugen, Facebook broke the law
Haugen’s lawyers have filed 8 complaints with the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). These complaints are focused on Facebook’s public statements regarding issues like what Facebook knew about how the organizers of the Jan 6 Capitol siege used its platform. It also included how effective Facebook has been at removing hate speech and how Instagram is contributing to the worsening of body image issues.
According to Haugen’s lawyers, Facebook executives, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg misrepresented and hid the important details about Facebook and Instagram’s ability to cause harm. They also allege that the company violated US securities laws by lying to investors.
However, Federal regulators and prosecutors have not disclosed how they plan on responding to the situation. Moreover, Facebook is claiming that Haugen is the one who broke the law and “stole” the documents.
Although Haugen is protected under the federal whistleblower protections, experts say that she could face some legal actions from Facebook.
More details about the documents
Haugen first shared the Facebook documents with The Wall Street Journal. After this, a revealing, in-depth series was released. It showed evidence that on a number of occasions, Facebook took no steps to reduce serious harms caused by content on the company’s platforms. For instance, in case of shutting down human trafficking or minimizing psychological harm to teen girls, many cases were ignored by Facebook.
An important point to note here is that Zuckerberg didn’t deny the origin or source of the documents. Instead, he responded by stating the efforts that the company is making.
He wrote on his Facebook page, that if they wanted to ignore research, why would they create an industry-leading research program to understand such important issues. He also said that if the company didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would it employ so many people for this cause.
He also commented on the transparency and said that if they wanted to hide the results, why would they establish an industry-leading standard for transparency and reporting on what they’re doing.
Though Haugen argues that the company has been anything but transparent. And the fact that she had to leak the documents about implications for public safety seems to prove her point.
Haugen is not the only whistleblower
Two weeks after Haugen testified, another whistleblower came forward. Sophie Zhang, who worked with Facebook from 2018 to 2020, said she will share her account with the British lawmakers.
Zhang is also a former data scientist at the tech giant. According to critics, her statements could add fuel to the global firestorm around Facebook. She studied how the fake engagement and bot accounts on Facebook worked.
Zhang had discovered that Honduras’s president was running a misinformation campaign on Facebook in an effort to manipulate his popularity. Furthermore, she disclosed how the company had been slow in taking action against the state-backed harassment campaign against journalists in Azerbaijan.
She had shared her story in the Guardian last year. However, Facebook had ignored her findings for almost a year. That is when she decided to go public.
What were Facebook’s remarks?
Well, Facebook said that both Haugen and Zhang worked under the “civic integrity” division and are mischaracterizations of Facebook’s work to protect the public. The tech giant claims that Haugen didn’t work directly on the issues she’s talking about.
Whereas in Zhang’s case, it claims that ultimate action was taken on the abuse she uncovered. Also, the delay in action was not because it wanted to protect the powerful people who use its service.
Sophie Zhang has confirmed submitting the documents to lawmakers. However, she refrained from further comments on the ongoing investigations.
In short, Facebook’s security has been coming under scrutiny quite often from the last few years. Let alone the users or lawmakers, it’s Facebook’s own employees that are opening up pandora boxes of such secrets. And who knows, maybe there are much bigger secrets that the tech giant is keeping from its users.
Using social media and the internet, it is quite common to expect such things from online platforms. Sharing data with third-party apps and tracking your activity is now a norm for Facebook. And maybe it wouldn’t even be an issue if the company had been transparent about it. But using the data to such a huge extent that people lose their lives, is an alarming situation.
So what do you think of this whole scenario? Who’s right and who’s not? Will you continue using the social media platforms owned by Facebook? And if yes, how do you think could you save yourself from any sort of mind games? Share your ideas with us and let us know what you think.