Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen blasted the tech giant during Senate testimony on Tuesday, accusing chief executive Mark Zuckerberg of putting profits over safety and calling for government regulators to step in.
“As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one and it will continue to make choices that go against the common good,” said Haugen, a former Facebook employee who leaked thousands of internal documents to lawmakers and the Wall Street Journal.
Material leaked by Haugen showed that Facebook has downplayed Instagram’s negative effects on teens’ mental health despite damning internal research. Others showed that the company exempts popular users from some content moderation rules and has failed to crack down on drug cartels and human traffickers.
“The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public,” said Haugen in testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee. “I came forward at great personal risk because I believe we still have time to act.”
Haugen also said that Facebook is unique among big tech companies due to the amount of power held by its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who she said has prioritized growth over safety with few checks on his power.
“There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled [as Facebook],” said Haugen. “The buck stops with Mark. There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
In the face of Haugen’s revelations, Zuckerberg has lately appeared flippant. He has not commented on the whistleblower or the Journal’s articles beyond making a joke about a surfboard — and posted a video of himself going sailing on Sunday, the same day that Haugen revealed her identity in an interview with 60 Minutes.
“Rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing,” said Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn during the hearing.
Haugen’s assertion came days after Facebook’s safety chief Antigone Davis denied in a hearing with the same Senate subcommittee that Zuckerberg has unilateral control over decisions at Facebook.
Davis also downplayed the research leaked by Haugen, arguing that it did not establish a “causal” connection between Instagram and teen mental health issues.
“This research is not a bombshell,” Davis insisted.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone also tried to minimize Haugen on Tuesday, writing on Twitter that Haugen “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.”
But Haugen says that her credibility as whistleblower should be based on the fact that she leaked reams of Facebook documents from researchers who were working on child safety and Instagram — not just her word.
The whistleblower worked at Facebook from June 2019 to May 2020, reading and copying thousands of documents from the company’s internal document system, called “Workplace.” Those documents included the studies on misinformation, trafficking and other harmful content that eventually were published by the Journal.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, has repeatedly said in media appearances that the very fact that such internal research exists shows the company’s commitment to understanding its impact on society.
“If we didn’t want to address those questions, we wouldn’t commission the research in the first place,” Clegg said Sunday on CNN.