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Whistleblower in Facebook renews scrutiny of company

The social media company deceived people and investors about its ability to deal with hate speech and misinformation, whistleblower Frances Haugen has alleged

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A data scientist named Frances Haugen has come out as the whistleblower behind a big exposure of the way social media giant Facebook functions. Before appearing on “60 Minutes” yesterday, former employee Haugen had kept her identity a secret after sharing thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents with the media and federal law enforcement, National Public Radio reported on 4 October.

The planned testimony by the whistleblower this week and the information she shared so far indicate that the company had deceived the public and its investors about its ability to deal with hate speech and misinformation on its platform.

“Facebook over and over again has shown it chooses profit over safety,” Haugen said during the interview on Sunday.

Her document dump, testimony scheduled before US Congress this week and an ongoing investigative reporting series into Facebook are potentially pushing the company into its biggest crisis yet. The negative spotlight comes amid increased scrutiny by Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill of Facebook’s actions.

Facebook Files’ reveals major issues, says whistleblower

Facebook issued a lengthy statement from the director of policy communications, Lena Pietsch, titled, “Missing Facts from Tonight’s 60 Minutes Segment.” She pointed at Facebook’s investment to monitor for harmful content, disputed the way Facebook’s own research on teenagers’ mental health has been reported and rejected the claim that the social network has furthered political polarization.

Recent reporting by The Wall Street Journal had already put Facebook in a spot of bother. The whistleblower shared thousands of Facebook documents with the newspaper that went into the creation of the Facebook Files series.

Thus far, the newspaper has revealed how anti-Covid-19 vaccine information flourished on Facebook. It reported further how separate rules allegedly applies to celebrities and politicians on the site. Facebook allowed VIP users to, for some time, avoid penalties for bad behaviour, says the report.

The whistleblower has detailed also how she says Facebook quickly disbanded its civic integrity team that was responsible for protecting the democratic process and tackling misinformation after the 2020 US election. Shortly afterwards came the 6 January riot at the US Capitol, where the rioters used Facebook to help plan.

“I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous,” Haugen told “60 Minutes”.

Remember Cambridge Analytica?

Facebook had started in CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm. Now it is estimated to be worth $ 1 trillion. As it has grown, so have its scandals. The company faced a massive backlash from users, politicians and regulators following the Cambridge Analytica debacle more than three years ago.

A whistleblower named Christopher Wylie had gone public in 2018 exposing how millions of Facebook users’ personal data had been accessed — without the users’ consent — by the British firm Cambridge Analytica. The now-defunct company used this information to attempt to influence several elections around the world, including the UK’s Brexit vote on leaving the European Union.

Three years later, Facebook, which has maintained no liability in the Cambridge Analytica dealings, went scot-free.

Facebook paid a $ 5 billion penalty to the Federal Trade Commission to resolve a sweeping investigation into its privacy practices prompted by the scandal, as well as a £ 500,000 (about $ 643,000) fine to the UK government. However, critics said the FTC fine, while the largest privacy settlement in the agency’s history, amounted to a slap on the wrist, given that it equated to about a month of revenue for Facebook.

In 2020, Facebook was criticised yet again for its regulation of political advertisements and misinformation on its platform, but no regulatory changes came from the criticism.

Lawmakers talk regulations

Following the Haugen interview aired on “60 Minutes”, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal shared on Twitter, “Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself. We must consider stronger oversight, effective protections for children, & tools for parents, among the needed reforms.”

For years, Congress has been stuck in an ongoing debate over how best to regulate Big Tech — even as Facebook says it welcomes updated regulations.

In June, House lawmakers had introduced sweeping antitrust reforms aimed at Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bills, but they have not been brought for a floor vote.

The scrutiny Facebook now faces could push lawmakers to act.

During a hearing last week, lawmakers examined allegations that Facebook’s own internal research showed its platforms are negatively affecting the mental health of millions of mostly teenage girls.

“This is your company’s reporting. You knew this was there. You knew it was there, but you didn’t do anything about it,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the subcommittee’s ranking member, referring to internal documents about the prevalence of sex trafficking on Facebook.

Facebook has said the research was taken out of context.

Whistleblower Haugen contacted state officials and the SEC but other regulatory agencies aren’t waiting for Congress.

Facebook is facing an antitrust lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission, which is demanding that the company sell or spin off and WhatsApp.

With these latest allegations, Facebook could soon be facing heat from other regulators.

Haugen and her attorney John Tye shared that she has filed at least eight complaints with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

These complaints focus on the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook, misrepresentations about the site’s role during the Capitol insurrection, and the dangers face on the site.

Tye, who spoke with NPR, said those allegations involve the difference between what Facebook knew about its platform and what it said publicly. He said misleading investors is a crime under U.S. securities law.

Documents of the latest whistleblower have been shared also with the state attorneys general for California, Vermont, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Nebraska, Tye told The New York Times.

It is not clear whether the SEC or those state attorneys general plan to address Haugen’s complaints.

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