Whistleblower to Blumenthal panel: 'Facebook's products harm children'

Photo of Julia Bergman

Hours into a hearing Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol, where a Facebook whistleblower testified about the company’s decisions to put its “astronomical profits before people,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal received a text message from a constituent who was watching.

The message came to the Connecticut Democrat from the father of a teen girl who began experiencing body image issues after using the photo-sharing app Instagram, which Facebook owns. He was in tears as he watched Blumenthal question the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, a former product manager for the company.

“My 15-year-old daughter loved her body at 14, was on Instagram constantly and maybe posting too much,” Blumenthal said, reading the man’s message aloud. “Suddenly, she started hating her body, her body dysmorphia, now anorexia, and was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear she will never be the same.”

Thousands of internal documents brought to light by Haugen have revealed that Facebook’s own research shows Instragram is toxic for teen girls in particular. But the company has not acknowledged that publicly.

“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said in her opening remarks at the second of two Senate hearings on the social network’s harmful impacts on teens, before a subcommittee chaired by Blumenthal.

In response to the hearing, Facebook spokeswoman Lena Pietsch said Haugen, whom she referred to as “a former product manager” in a written statement, “worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.”

Still, Pietsch lined up with Blumenthal and others from both major parties on the need for updated regulations for Fcebook and other Big Tech firms that dominate online life.

“We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet,” Pietsch said. “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.”

For Connecticut’s senior senator, known for his penchant for consumer advocacy issues honed in two decades as the state attorney general, the leaked documents and Haugen’s testimony represent a watershed moment for the long examination of social media by Congress. Together, the documents and testimony — Haugen delivered an explanation of how Facebook’s famously guarded algorithms determine who will see what — offered an inside look into the company’s operations.

“Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment,” Blumenthal said at Tuesday’s hearing, which he led as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security. “A moment of reckoning, parallelly striking.”

In the 90s, the revelation that the tobacco industry had kept its research on addiction and the toxicity of their products secret from the public was a turning point in lawsuit against the industry. Blumenthal played a leading role in reaching a $206 billion multi-state settlement with cigarette makers.

“It is documented proof that Facebook knows its products can be addictive and toxic to children and it’s not just that they made money, it’s that they valued their profit more than the pain that they caused to children and their families,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal asked Haugen: What about Facebook’s “tactics of hooking young people” makes it similar to what Big Tobacco did in getting people addicted to cigarettes? Haugen pointed to Facebook’s research, which includes quotes from young people who said Instagram makes them feel bad, but they also feel like they can’t stop using it.

“They want the next click. They want the next like. The dopamine. The little hits all the time,” she said. “I feel a lot of pain for those kids. They say they fear being ostracized if they step away from the platform.”

Haugen worked on a team at Facebook that was assigned to address how the platform was being used in international spying. Addressing that separate issue, she said national security monitoring was understaffed at Facebook, leading to the potential that the system would miss signs of global threats.

At issue in the congressional hearings is whether the federal government should tighten regulation over Facebook, or perhaps seek to break up the company that dominates social media and online advertising through Instagram, WhatsApp and its namesake platform — a longshot legal action that some people in the government favor.

Blumenthal and the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, said they would welcome the testimony of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer the charges. Blumenthal said it was “premature” to issue a subpoena.

Haugen said Tuesday she is against breaking up the company as she doesn’t think that will solve the problems that she raised.

Instead, she said, Congress should demand more transparency of Facebook, including turning over more documents and its internal research, so that Congress could more fully understand how to regulate it. She detailed how Facebook’s algorithms and the decisions made about what people see on the platform have led to many of the negative impacts.

Haugen also suggested the minimum age should be raised to allow only older teenagers to use Instagram.

She recommended exempting decisions about algorithms from the immunity provided under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet companies from being held liable for material posted by their users. That would open up Facebook and other apps to lawsuits over decisions around how they prioritize content in users’ feeds.

“When we realized Big Tobacco was hiding the harms it caused, the government took action,” Haugen said earlier in her testimony. “I implore you to do the same here.”

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com