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What people are saying about the Facebook whistleblower’s damning testimony to Congress

Whistleblower Frances Haugen’s hearing at the US Senate had everyone buzzing with Facebook trying hard to discredit her.

“The US needs a Data Protection Agency,” Senator Kristen Gillibrand tweeted a few hours after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a US Senate subcommittee.

Gillibrand’s tweet referred to the Data Protection Act she had announced in June, which involves setting up an agency to check indiscriminate data collection by companies and enforce America’s privacy laws. At present, this job largely falls in the ambit of the US Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys.

Haugen, who is an ex-Facebook employee, provided damning testimony about the company’s practices and its attempts to mislead the public about them. Following the hearing, as Facebook grappled with the crisis, lawmakers, researchers, and others reflected on what Haugen’s revelations mean for tech regulations going forward.

Facebook whistleblower hearing provided sharp focus but…

  • “Specifically, Haugen managed to elevate the conversation about Facebook by focusing it on the platform’s design and algorithms instead of portraying the company as a politically motivated, censorious juggernaut or an evil empire set on global destruction,” said writer Charlie Warzel, highlighting how the Haugen testimony was different from all the other times Big Tech executives or researchers who have testified at similar hearings before.
  • “Ultimately, Haugen said little on Tuesday that wasn’t previously known, either because she said it on 60 Minutes or it was previously covered in the Journal series. What she might have done, though, is to finally galvanize support in Congress for meaningful tech regulation,” wrote journalist Casey Newton. He opined that the hearing provided the uncommon opportunity to talk about the mental health harms of social media in more empirical terms, as opposed to the emotional or anecdotal basis that it is usually grounded in. However, Newton did say that he wished the conversation had gone into more about what Haugen specifically did during her time at Facebook and veered away from techno-solutionism.
  • Haugen’s testimony will provide an opportunity to lawmakers, predominantly Democrats, to force political/ideology-based censorship over social media content than check the influence of such companies, said Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept. This was an opinion that was later echoed on Fox News and Twitter.

“Oversight Board members should resign”

“The Oversight board was a PR exercise by Facebook and the people who are on it should not have allowed their good names to be used in this way,” Damian Collins, the Conservative chairman of a British parliamentary committee on online safety, said.

“The Oversight Board performs only fake oversight”, the ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ (RFOB) said, asking that the company should have some independent oversight. Additionally, RFOB asked that an investigation and an audit be undertaken of the social media giant.

What is the Real Facebook Oversight Board? The RFOB is a 25-member group that was formed to critique Facebook’s content moderation decision in ‘real-time’ during the 2020 US Presidential Elections. It is separate from Facebook’s actual Oversight Board which could only review Facebook’s content moderation decisions after the elections.

Facebook’s response:

The company’s response so far to the hearing has been to:

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Decry the credibility of Haugen’s testimony: Facebook said that Haugen worked with them for ‘less than two years’, ‘never attended a decision-point meeting with c-level executives’, ‘had no direct reports’, and ‘testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question. CEO Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence and said that a false image of the company was being painted misrepresenting its research.

Shift the responsibility to the US Congress: Facebook also said that the US Congress needs to ‘make societal decisions’ by way of updating and standardising rules for the internet instead of expecting the industries to act.

Alleging Haugen ‘stole’ the documents: Monica Bickert, Vice President of Content Policy at Facebook, appearing on US news channel CNN repeatedly referred to the documents Haugen leaked as ‘stolen’. Bickert also tried to decrease the significance of the research by saying that it was not peer-reviewed and that only a minority of young girls had harmful thoughts on Instagram.

What Haugen revealed at the hearing

At the hearing, Haugen revealed details about how Facebook prioritises its growth over public or user safety. She noted that it underinvests in its safety and integrity departments which deal with misinformation, hate speech, etc., particularly, in non-English speaking countries. Haugen said that Facebook’s content algorithm promotes divisive, polarising content by way of pushing engaging content on people’s feeds, which increases negative sentiments among people.

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Written By

I cover health and education technology for MediaNama. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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