Home News Facebook’s anger management: Both parties embrace whistleblower at heated hearing

Facebook’s anger management: Both parties embrace whistleblower at heated hearing

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Things are going so horribly wrong for Facebook that its technological meltdown almost provided a respite—except that it made everyone even angrier.

I fleetingly fantasized about whether Mark Zuckerberg was so fed up with the mounting criticism that he pulled the plug to remind the world how essential his creation is. Blaming it on a “faulty configuration change” is so … vague. 

The masterfully orchestrated campaign by whistleblower Frances Haugen, culminating in Tuesday’s Senate hearing, has punctured another tire in the Facebook tank, already scorched and dented by hostile fire.

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After years of blunders and blinders, Zuckerberg, no longer the Harvard anti-hero, has decided to stop apologizing. But the company’s defense is severely undermined by its own internal documents, thousands of which Haugen leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

Then she emerged, camera-ready, revealing her identity on “60 Minutes,” adding a personal element to her crusade against the company she quit.

While Facebook isn’t responsible for all the planet’s ills, it has in many ways become its own worst enemy, and its stock has dropped 13% in recent weeks. Still, with 3.5 billion users around the globe — and that includes Instagram and WhatsApp – this juggernaut is so aggressive that it’s practically begging for government regulation.

From allowing Russian disinformation in 2016 to fueling hate speech today, from tolerating to then banning Holocaust denialism, the company has lurched from crisis to crisis. Conservatives see undeniable proof of liberal bias in the barring of Donald Trump. Liberals see a rapacious corporation crushing its competitors, as exemplified by a Federal Trade Commission antitrust lawsuit.

And Haugen’s documents opened up a whole new front by confirming the brass knows that Instagram causes depression and body-image issues for many teenage girls but refuses to do anything about it.

When Haugen testified Tuesday that Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy” and “put their immense profits before people,” not to mention “hiding in the shadows,” she had plenty of information to back it up.

The Journal series documented how Facebook treats VIPs more leniently, and how an algorithm tweak spread angry and toxic posts in the news feed, boosting the company’s traffic.

Haugen, who now becomes the, uh, face of the opposition, said Facebook could use its immense resources “to destroy me.” The committee’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, quickly thanked her for taking the risk, and went off on the company “sowing hate” and “fanning the flames of division.”

The ranking Republican, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, chastised the company for allowing underage users, noting that 600,000 kids under 13 who “ought not to be there in the first place” had their accounts deleted in the last three months.

Back and forth it went, with stinging criticism from both sides of the dais. It was a rare moment of bipartisan unity: Everyone hated Facebook.

“You are a 21st-century American hero,” gushed Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

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Haugen says that 10% to 15% of underage kids may be on Facebook or Instagram and the executives are well aware of this, even as some children lie.  

In a devastating indictment, she told Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota that “Facebook knows they are leading young users to anorexia content.”

This photo illustration shows Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, testifying Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing, and Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaking on Capitol Hill on Oct. 23, 2019.<strong> </strong>

This photo illustration shows Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, testifying Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing, and Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaking on Capitol Hill on Oct. 23, 2019.<strong> </strong>
(Getty Images)

Haugen is pushing for congressional action and found a receptive audience. Klobuchar, a Democratic presidential candidate last year, declared: “The time has come for action, and I think you are the catalyst for action.”

“We got some things we can do here,” Republican John Thune of South Dakota agreed.

Haugen, poised and deeply knowledgeable, was able to illuminate the darker corners of the social network. She suggested lifting some of the legal immunity that protects social media companies, specifically when it comes to algorithms, so computers don’t control our content.

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The Washington Post describes Facebook’s strategic shift: “Gone is the familiar script in which chief executive Mark Zuckerberg issues a formal apology — sometimes in long blogs on his personal Facebook page or over live-streamed video for a Congressional hearing — then takes responsibility and promises change.

“In its place, the company has deployed a slate of executives to mount a public defense,” while “quibbling with the details” of Haugen’s allegations. Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister and now a Facebook VP, is leading the charge. But as Haugen said of the company’s CEO: “The buck stops with Mark.”

Frances Haugen is now the Daniel Ellsberg of digital leaks. But while the Pentagon Papers looked back at the Vietnam War, the Facebook findings deal with the here and now – and the next chapter of history has yet to be written.

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