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Whistleblower Haugen says Facebook making online hate worse

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 25, 2021

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, left, leaves the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday after giving evidence to the joint committee for the Draft Online Safety Bill as part of British government plans for social media regulation.  (Associated Press)
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, left, leaves the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday after giving evidence to the joint committee for the Draft Online Safety Bill as part of British government plans for social media regulation. (Associated Press)
By Kelvin Chan Associated Press Associated Press

LONDON – Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told British lawmakers Monday that the social media giant stokes online hate and extremism, fails to protect children from harmful content and lacks any incentive to fix the problems, providing strong momentum for efforts by European governments working on stricter regulation of tech giants.

While her testimony echoed much of what she told the U.S. Senate earlier this month, her appearance drew intense interest from a British parliamentary committee that is much further along in drawing up legislation to crack down on social platforms.

It came the same day that Facebook is set to release its latest earnings and that The Associated Press and other news organizations started publishing stories based on thousands of pages of internal company documents she obtained.

Haugen told the committee of United Kingdom lawmakers that Facebook Groups amplifies online hate, saying algorithms that prioritize engagement take people with mainstream interests and push them to the extremes.

The former Facebook data scientist said the company could add moderators to prevent groups over a certain size from being used to spread extremist views.

“Unquestionably, it’s making hate worse,” she said.

Haugen added that she was “shocked to hear recently that Facebook wants to double down on the metaverse and that they’re gonna hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to work on the metaverse,” Haugen said, referring to the company’s plans for an immersive online world it believes will be the next big internet trend.

“I was like, ‘Wow, do you know what we could have done with safety if we had 10,000 more engineers?’ It would be amazing,” she said.

It’s her second appearance before lawmakers after she testified in the U.S. about the danger she says the company poses, from harming children to inciting political violence and fueling misinformation.

Haugen cited internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in Facebook’s civic integrity unit.

The documents, which Haugen provided to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, allege Facebook prioritized profits over safety and hid its own research from investors and the public.

Some stories based on the files have already been published, exposing internal turmoil after Facebook was blindsided by the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot and how it dithered over curbing divisive content in India, and more is to come.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users or that pushes divisive content, saying a false picture is being painted.

But he does agree on the need for updated internet regulations, saying lawmakers are best able to assess the tradeoffs.

Haugen said Monday that Facebook’s moderation systems are worse at catching content in languages other than English, and that’s a problem even in the U.K. because it’s diverse country.

“Those people are also living in the U.K. and being fed misinformation that is dangerous, that radicalizes people,” Haugen said. “And so language-based coverage is not just a good-for-individuals thing, it’s a national security issue.”

Pressed on whether she believes Facebook is fundamentally evil, Haugen demurred and said, “I can’t see into the hearts of men.” Facebook is not evil, but negligent, she suggested.

“It believes in a world of flatness and it won’t accept the consequences of its actions,” pointing to its mammoth one-level, open-plan corporate office as an embodiment of the philosophy.

She made the case that there’s a culture at Facebook that discourages rank-and-file employees from bringing concerns to executives at the top.

For many of those, including Zuckerberg, it’s the only place they have worked, which contributes to the cultural problem, she said.

Haugen told lawmakers in the United States that she thinks a federal regulator is needed to oversee digital giants like Facebook, something that officials in Britain and the European Union are already working on.

The U.K. government’s online safety bill calls for setting up a regulator that would hold companies to account when it comes to removing harmful or illegal content from their platforms, such as terrorist material or child sex abuse images.

“This is quite a big moment,” Damian Collins, the lawmaker who chairs the committee, said ahead of the hearing. “This is a moment, sort of like Cambridge Analytica, but possibly bigger in that I think it provides a real window into the soul of these companies.”

Collins was referring to the 2018 debacle involving data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which gathered details on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

Representatives from Facebook and other social media companies plan to speak to the committee Thursday.Haugen also is scheduled to meet next month with European Union officials in Brussels, where the bloc’s executive commission is updating its digital rulebook to better protect internet users by holding online companies more responsible for illegal or dangerous content.

Under the U.K. rules, expected to take effect next year, Silicon Valley giants face an ultimate penalty of up to 10% of their global revenue for any violations. The EU is proposing a similar penalty.

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