[Update: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to testify about Facebook policies, and said Mark Zuckerberg is personally responsible for placing profits before the mental wellbeing of children. Read about her testimony here and her eight SEC complaints here.]
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published internal research from Facebook showing that the social media company knows precisely how toxic its own product is for the people who use it. But tonight, we learned how the Journal obtained those documents: A whistleblower named Frances Haugen, who spoke with CBS News’ 60 Minutes about the ways Facebook is poisoning society.
The 37-year-old whistleblower liberated “tens of thousands” of pages of documents from Facebook and even plans to testify to Congress at some point this week. Haugen has filed at least eight complaints with the SEC alleging that Facebook has lied to shareholders about its own product.
Fundamentally, Haugen alleges there’s a key conflict between what’s good for Facebook and what’s good for society at large. At the end of the day, things that are good for Facebook tend to be bad for the world we live in, according to Haugen. We’ve pulled out some of the most interesting tidbits from Sunday’s interview that highlight this central point.
Haugen explained to 60 Minutes how Facebook’s algorithm chooses content that’s likely to make users angry because that causes the most engagement. And user engagement is what Facebook turns into ad dollars.
“Its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing, it’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money,” Haugen continued.
Whenever we talk about social media and the ways it’s harmed society, a lot of Big Tech companies get lumped in together, whether it’s Twitter or YouTube or Pinterest. But, according to Haugen, Facebook is uniquely awful.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
Haugen previously worked at Pinterest and Google, and insists that Facebook really is worse than the rest of Big Tech in substantial ways.
- More from Gizmodo: What Would Happen If Mark Zuckerberg Deleted All of Facebook?
3) Facebook dissolved its Civic Integrity unit after the 2020 election and before the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection
Haugen worked at the so-called Civic Integrity unit of Facebook, in charge of combating political misinformation on the platform. But the social media company seemed to think they were in the clear after the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 and that Civic Integrity could be shut down.
“They told us, ‘We’re dissolving Civic Integrity.’ Like, they basically said, ‘Oh good, we made it through the election. There wasn’t riots. We can get rid of Civic Integrity now.’ Fast forward a couple months, we got the insurrection,” Haugen said.
It’s important to remember that Facebook isn’t just destroying American democracy, it’s chipping away at democratic institutions all around the world.
4) Political parties in Europe ran negative ads because it was the only way to reach people on Facebook
One of the documents Haugen smuggled out of the company shows that political parties in Europe had to start running negative ads to get any engagement on Facebook.
Summarizing the position of political parties in Europe, Haugen explained, “You are forcing us to take positions that we don’t like, that we know are bad for society. We know if we don’t take those positions, we won’t win in the marketplace of social media.”
Facebook’s internal research shows that it identifies roughly; 3-5% of hate on the platform and less than 1% of violence and incitement, according to one of the studies leaked by Haugen. And yet Facebook still considers itself to be the best in the world at identifying hate and incitement on social media.
Facebook takes issue with this characterization, naturally. In fact, the company seems to think the real problem is the internet itself, at least, according to a statement the company sent Gizmodo on Sunday night.
“If any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments, and society would have solved them a long time ago,” a spokesperson for Facebook told Gizmodo. “We have a strong track record of using our research — as well as external research and close collaboration with experts and organizations — to inform changes to our apps.”
Facebook owns Instagram, and as 60 Minutes points out, the documents leaked by Haugen show that 13.5% of teen girls say Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse, and 17% say it makes their eating disorders worse.
“What’s super tragic is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this— this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. And it actually makes them use the app more. And so, they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
And that’s all part of the business model. Facebook is making lots and lots of money from this misery. But Facebook obviously has a different take.
“We do internal research to ask hard questions and find out how we can best improve the experience for teens and we will continue doing this work to improve Instagram and all of our apps. It is not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” Lena Pietsch, Director of Policy Communications, told Gizmodo via email.
“The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced. This research, like external research on these issues, found teens report having both positive and negative experiences with social media,” Pietsch continued.
Haugen says that the people who work at Facebook aren’t bad people, which seems like the kind of thing someone who previously worked at Facebook might say.
“No one at Facebook is malevolent, but the incentives are misaligned, right?” Haugen insists. “Like, Facebook makes more money when you consume more content. People enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction. And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact and the more they consume.”
And while it’s easy to see why Haugen might believe “no one” at Facebook is malevolent, that’s quite a bold claim at this point. Facebook’s negative impact on society isn’t exactly a secret here in the 2020s.
Again, Facebook doesn’t see it that way.
“Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits,” Lena Pietsch told Gizmodo via email Sunday night. “To say we turn a blind eye to feedback ignores these investments, including the 40,000 people working on safety and security at Facebook and our investment of $13 billion since 2016.”
“I have a lot of empathy for Mark. And Mark has never set out to make a hateful platform. But he has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful, polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
But as Haugen herself said, it doesn’t really matter whether Zuckerberg set out to make a hateful platform. In reality, he set out to make a website for rating the hotness of women, but that’s really neither here nor there. What matters is how the platform is being used and abused today.
When 60 Minutes talked with Haugen’s lawyer, John Tye, who works with whistleblowers, we heard about how the law protects people who talk with the SEC.
“The Dodd-Frank Act, passed over ten years ago at this point, created an Office of the Whistleblower inside the SEC. And one of the provisions of that law says that no company can prohibit its employees from communicating with the SEC and sharing internal corporate documents with the SEC,” Tye told 60 Minutes.
And while Dodd-Frank hypothetically protects employees talking with the SEC, it doesn’t necessarily protect people talking with journalists and taking thousands of pages of documents. But we’re going to find out pretty quickly just how much protection whistleblowers actually get in the U.S. Historically, let’s just say the answer has been “not much.”
Update, 11:50 p.m.: Updated with comments from Facebook.