Tech & Terrorism: Facebook Whistleblower Testifies Before U.S. Congress

(New York, N.Y.) — On Tuesday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified at a hearing before the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. She explained how Facebook’s products and algorithms have had negative effects on mental health, bullying, human trafficking, and political discourse, and how the company has failed to take appropriate action to reduce or eliminate these harms.

In her opening statement, Haugen called on Congress to act, saying, “I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more. The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people. Congressional action is needed.

“Facebook’s actions—whether it be selectively applying its content moderation rules, withholding information on the harmful effects the platform has on young users, or doing nothing when it comes to content that incites violence and hatred—have one common thread: putting profits ahead of public safety,” said Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Executive Director David Ibsen. “Like other for-profit tech firms, Facebook’s business model is very clear and relies on algorithms to drive engagement to make money—including pushing content that is divisive, conspiratorial, and extremist. Facebook’s behavior proves that its repeated promises to do better cannot be trusted. In the face of inaction and even defiance from the tech giant, government regulators must step in.”

Haugen’s testimony comes a month after the Wall Street Journal published The Facebook Files that were based on the internal documents Haugen provided to them. Haugen has also been invited to testify before the European Parliament. The findings from the Journal investigation include:

  • Facebook created a previously unknown program called “cross check” (XCheck) that allowed high-profile accounts and VIPs to circumvent the company’s terms of service and post “rule-violating material” that “contain[ed] harassment or incitement to violence.”
  • Researchers from Facebook-owned Instagram found that Instagram was “harmful for a sizable percentage of [young users], most notably teenage girls, more so than other social media platforms.” Facebook executives have in response “consistently played down the app’s negative effects.”
  • Changes Facebook made to its algorithm in 2018 to increase user engagement on its platforms were making “those who used it, angrier.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself allegedly resisted making further changes because he “worried they would lead people to interact with Facebook less.”
  • Facebook employees warned the site was being used for heinous crimes including facilitating human trafficking in the Middle East and inciting ethnic violence in Ethiopia. The company’s response was described “in many instances” as “inadequate or nothing at all.”
  • Despite Facebook’s efforts to promote vaccinations, its platform instead became flooded with “barrier to vaccination” content.

Earlier this year, CEP hosted a webinar with Dr. Hany Farid, senior advisor to CEP and a professor at UC Berkeley, to explore the nature and extent of the global phenomenon of misinformation as well as the role of algorithmic amplification in promoting misinformation and divisive content online. Dr. Farid said: “Algorithmic amplification is the root cause of the unprecedented dissemination of hate speech, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and harmful content online. Platforms have learned that divisive content attracts the highest number of users and as such, the real power lies with these recommendation algorithms. Until thorough regulation is put in place, controversial content will continue to be promoted and amplified online.”

Facebook has long faced criticism for the misuse of its platform on issues ranging from the publication of inappropriate content to user privacy and safety. Rather than taking preventative measures, however, Facebook has merely jumped to make policy changes after damage has already been done. CEP has documented instances in which Facebook has made express policy changes following public accusations, a scandal, or pressure from lawmakers. While one would hope that Facebook is continuously working to improve security on its platform, there is no excuse as to why so many policy changes have been reactive, and it raises the question as to what other scandals are in the making due to still-undiscovered lapses in Facebook’s current policy.

To read CEP’s resource Tracking Facebook’s Policy Changes, please click here.

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On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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