Facebook Weakens Democracy & Harms Children

A former Facebook employee has told US lawmakers that the company's sites and apps "harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy". Frances Haugen, a 37-year-old former product manager turned whistleblower, heavily criticised the company at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Ms Haugen, a data scientist from Iowa, has worked for companies including Google and Pinterest, but said in an interview with CBS News' 60 Minutes that Facebook was "substantially worse" than anything she had seen before.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg hit back, saying recent coverage painted a "false picture" of the company. In a letter to staff, he said many of the claims "don't make any sense", pointing to their efforts in fighting harmful content, establishing transparency and creating "an industry-leading research program to under these important issues... It's difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives."

Facebook is the world's most popular social media site. The company says it has 2.7 billion monthly active users. Hundreds of millions of people also use the company's other products, including WhatsApp and Instagram.

Ms Haugen said during her testimony, "The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people".  She criticised Mark Zuckerberg for having wide-ranging control, saying that there is "no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself."

The documents leaked by Ms Haugen included  a review that suggests the peer pressure generated by Instagram led to mental health and body image problems among young girls, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
And she praised recent Facebook outage which affected users around the world. "Yesterday we saw Facebook taken off the Internet," she said. "I don't know why it went down, but I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn't used to deepen divides, destabilise democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies." The answer, she told senators, was congressional oversight. "We must act now," she said. 

In his letter, Zuckerberg said the research into Instagram had been wrongly characterised and that many young people had positive experiences of using the platform. He said "it's very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids".

Both Republican and Democratic senators said there was a need for change at Facebook which was a rare topic of agreement between the two political parties. "The damage to self-interest and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said.  Fellow Republican Dan Sullivan said the world would look back and ask "What the hell were we thinking?" in light of the revelations about Facebook's impact on children.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Facebook said it did not agree with Ms Haugen's "characterisation of the many issues she testified about". But it did agree that "it's time to begin to create standard rules for the internet... It's been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act," the statement read.

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