The Facebook whistleblower’s Congressional hearing was a ‘big tobacco moment’ for tech

Here’s what Frances Haugen told officials about the inner workings of the social network today.
Frances Haugen testified on Tuesday in front of Congress. CSPAN / screenshot

In front of members of the Senate on Tuesday, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen accused the company of “prioritizing its profits over people,” including the safety of young users.

“I am here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” said Haugen, who has become known as the Facebook whistleblower.

While Haugen only revealed her identity two days ago in an interview with 60 Minutes, her actions since leaving the company in May have led to a reckoning for the social media giant. Before resigning from her job as a product manager, Haugen obtained tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents from the company, which she used to file multiple complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. These complaints, some of which have since been published on CBS News, claim that Facebook has misled investors over its actions relating to hate speech, its mental health impacts on teen users, and the type of content promoted by its algorithm, among other concerns. 

Haugen also leaked some of those documents to The Wall Street Journal, providing the basis for the company’s  “Facebook Files” investigative series, which she informed but was not identified in until the most recent dispatch. Articles published in September detailing the company’s interest in and targeted research about teens and children elicited particularly strong backlash, and Facebook later announced it would reconsider its approach to creating an Instagram Kids feature. 

But Haugen expressed doubt on Tuesday during her testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security that Facebook has the ability to meaningfully self-regulate, calling on officials to step in. 

“Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop that they cannot get out of,” Haugen said, calling the cycle an issue of “moral bankruptcy.” “They need to admit that they did something wrong and that they need help to solve these problems.”

[Related: Facebook has an explanation for its massive Monday outage]

Along with raising alarms about Facebook’s lack of transparency and oversight, Haugen criticized its reliance on algorithms, advocating for ways to “slow the platform down” to reduce the spread of misinformation and user dependence on the social media sites. As it currently operates, Haugen said she has “strong national security concerns” about Facebook’s use by foreign adversaries and the platform’s lack of staff to address counter-espionage and counterterrorism issues. She also cast skepticism over its ability to regulate misinformation in key areas, including content relating to vaccines. 

Still, she expressed hope in the potential for Facebook to improve and refrained from calling for extreme consequences against the company that would see it broken up or dissolved. 

“If people just hate Facebook more because of what I’ve done, then I’ve failed,” she previously said to The Wall Street Journal. “I believe in truth and reconciliation – we need to admit reality. The first step of that is documentation.”

Though Haugen’s testimony and choice to speak out were broadly praised by a bipartisan coalition of officials, with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) likening the hearing to a “big tobacco moment” for big tech, Facebook has pushed back on her image as an expert in the company’s operations. 

“Just pointing out the fact that @FrancesHaugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook,” tweeted Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone at the start of the hearing. 

[Related: Criticism has pushed ‘Instagram Kids’ back to the drawing board]

After it concluded, multiple spokespeople for the company, including Stone, sent out what was perhaps a bit more pointed statement from Facebook’s director of policy communications, Lena Pietsch. Pietsch referred to Haugen as “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 disputed her “characterization” of the issues she testified about.

The company has also issued specific rebuttals to Haugen’s claims on 60 Minutes and to The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on its internal documents, focusing on its investments into keeping the platform safe, particularly for younger users. 

Still, it seems likely that the world will be hearing more from Haugen—the former Facebook employee mentioned in her testimony that she will be speaking to another congressional committee, and the San Francisco Chronicle says she is slated to appear in front of British and European officials next.