Frances Haugen Testifies at Facebook Whistle-Blower Hearing: Live Updates

ImageDocuments that a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, provided to The Wall Street Journal showed that Instagram made body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.
Credit…Lisa Maree Williams for The New York Times

Annie Zhu got an Instagram account during her freshman year of high school. At first, she curated her profile carefully, showing off different outfits and looks. She followed body positivity and body neutrality accounts. But she still sometimes compared herself with others, and “it can make me feel bad,” she said.

So when she recently listened to a podcast revealing how Facebook’s research concluded that Instagram, which it owns, was toxic for teenage girls, she said, the findings “didn’t surprise me at all.”

“In my past experiences, it has been a huge struggle,” Ms. Zhu, an 18-year-old Stanford University freshman, said in an interview.

Among young people, the idea that Instagram can hurt someone’s self-image is widely discussed. Ms. Zhu said she and her friends talked about how social interactions on Instagram felt inauthentic. Some friends have deleted the app because they didn’t think it was contributing positively to their lives, she added. She said she now used Instagram largely as a messaging system and rarely posted on it.

“If you ask a young person, it’s something you deal with on a daily basis,” said Vicki Harrison, who directs the Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing at Stanford. “You don’t need this research to tell you this.”

Ms. Harrison works with the GoodforMEdia project, a peer mentoring initiative for older teenagers and young adults to share experiences and advice on using social media. Teenagers she works with have told her that Instagram is often the hardest platform for them because of how polished users’ social media profiles are.

Their experiences were echoed in Facebook’s internal research. Documents that a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, provided to The Wall Street Journal showed that Instagram made body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.

Facebook has responded that the research did not show a causal link and that a majority of teenage girls experiencing body-image issues reported that Instagram either made their body image better or had no impact.

Iris Tsouris, a freshman at Yale University, said Instagram had worsened her body image issues. While she follows some body positivity accounts, that kind of content doesn’t show up in the algorithm-curated posts on her Instagram Explore page — where she instead sees posts about replacing meals with iced coffee.

Facebook’s research was “not at all” eye-opening to her, she said.

“It perpetuates negative self-image in people, stuff that might feed into eating disorders,” Ms. Tsouris, 18, said. “I’ve definitely seen people impacted by jealousy or the fear of missing out.”

Still, some teenagers said they were glad the research was out, even if they were not sure what it would change.

“The fact that Facebook knows is important,” said Claire Turney, 18, a freshman at the University of Virginia who attended high school with Ms. Tsouris. “That they know that it is destructive and they continue to market it to teenage girls is a little messy in my opinion, but that’s capitalism.”

Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The Senate Commerce committee has been preparing for this hearing for weeks, with the two top members huddling with their aides and Facebook policy experts to prepare their lines of questioning.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut who chairs the Senate commerce subcommittee on consumer protections, said in a tweet that he had been speaking with the whistle-blower testifying on Tuesday, Frances Haugen, in the lead-up to the hearing.

“From her first visit with my office, I’ve admired her backbone & bravery in revealing terrible truths about one of the world’s most powerful, implacable corporate giants,” Mr. Blumenthal wrote. “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.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn, the top Republican on the committee, said that she has been combing over the documents provided by Ms. Haugen.

In her prepared remarks ahead of the hearing, Senator Blackburn said that Facebook was “running scared.”

“They know that — in their words — ‘young adults are less active and less engaged on Facebook’ and that they are running out of teens to add to Instagram,” she said, adding that Congress’ role was to provide oversight to Facebook. “By shining a light on Mr. Zuckerberg and company’s conduct, we will help hold them accountable.”

Last week, the same committee held a hearing with Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, in which they accused the company of using the “big tobacco” playbook by hiding research that suggested that their products introduced hate speech, misinformation and other harms through its platform.

The committee also includes Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat of Minnesota, who recently proposed legislation that would hold Facebook accountable for Covid-19 misinformation, and Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, who last week reintroduced legislation to provide more protection to young people online.

Senator Roger Wicker, the Republican from Mississippi, said “the children of America are hooked” on Facebook’s apps. It’s a popular talking point, but it’s interesting to contrast the image of an irresistible, addictive Facebook with the internal research Ms. Haugen provided, which showed that teens were abandoning Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, Instagram) at a rate that alarmed the company’s executives.

Frances Haugen has started testifying. She says that Facebook won’t put its “astronomical profits before people,” and that congressional intervention is needed. No mincing of words there.

Credit…Pool photo by Jabin Botsford

We’re already seeing some echoes of certain phrases as the hearing goes on. I imagine “Facebook is prioritizing profit over people” is going to stick, something that Ms. Haugen has repeated in interviews over the last 48 hours. Maybe Facebook will come up with a pithy slogan to defend itself?

Senator Marsha Blackburn, the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, said of Facebook’s research: “They know they are guilty.”

Inside the hearing room, Ms. Haugen nodded vociferously as Mr. Blumenthal called for the S.E.C. and the F.T.C. to investigate Facebook based on her research. She was joined by two lawyers from Whistleblower Aid and will soon make her opening remarks.

Credit…Pool photo by Jabin Botsford

Credit…Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Hours before “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview on Sunday with a whistle-blower who has roiled Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, posted a video online.

The 38-second clip featured him and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, sailing. The footage, which was taken with new Facebook glasses that can record video, made no reference to the weekslong scandal that has engulfed the company after the whistle-blower leaked documents showing that the social network had studied and understood the harmful effects of its products.

Since The Wall Street Journal started publishing articles based on that leaked information last month, Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, have said nothing publicly about the revelations. Instead, Facebook’s responses have featured Nick Clegg, the vice president of global affairs, and Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, among others.

That has led lawmakers and others to question: Where are Facebook’s top two leaders?

Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg are deliberately avoiding public comment on the leaked documents, people with knowledge of the matter previously told The New York Times. That way, the executives can avoid negative press and appear to be above the fray, they said.

For months, Facebook has had an internal plan to separate Mr. Zuckerberg from the company’s crises. Instead, his public communications and posts have been focused on product announcements and his plans for the “metaverse,” where people maintain some sense of continuity through all the different digital worlds they inhabit.

Ms. Sandberg, too, has focused on other topics in her public communications. She recently added a post about small businesses in the United Arab Emirates to her Facebook page.

Mr. Zuckerberg deviated from that strategy only recently when he used his Facebook page last month to dispute a New York Times article’s description of a video he had posted. The Times said he was riding an electric surfboard; Mr. Zuckerberg said he instead was riding “a hydrofoil that I’m pumping with my own legs.”

On Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg also posted about a worldwide outage of the social network and its apps, which lasted more than five hours. “Sorry for the disruption today — I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about,” he wrote.

Senator Blumenthal just made what I imagine will be the first of many comparisons between Facebook and the tobacco industry, saying that Ms. Haugen’s revelations had created a “Big Tobacco moment” for the social network. (Tobacco is a topic Mr. Blumenthal knows well. He made his name suing tobacco companies as the attorney general of Connecticut during the 1990s.)

Senator Blumenthal called out Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, for his lack of response to Ms. Haugen’s findings. Over the weekend, Mr. Zuckerberg posted video of himself and his wife sailing. The Senator demanded that Mr. Zuckerberg appear before the Senate.

Last week, Ms. Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, told this same subcommittee that Facebook’s research about teens obtained by Ms. Haugen was “not a bombshell.” Senator Blumenthal responds directly to that calling it “the very definition of a bombshell.”

Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

And it begins! Senator Richard Blumenthal kicks off the hearing with a preamble thanking Ms. Haugen.

Facebook is steeling itself for a long morning of testimony. To get ahead of negative press, top executives have started appearing on some of the network morning shows to burnish the company’s image. Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, defended Facebook on Stephanie Ruhle’s MSNBC show moments ago.

Just 48 hours after Ms. Haugen first revealed herself, she has garnered something of a Twitter presence. With just over 25,000 followers, her latest tweet directs people to watch her testimony on Capitol Hill this morning. She has also started following a handful of people — mostly social media academics and politicians.

Frances Haugen’s in-person appearance contrasts with Facebook’s Antigone Davis, the company executive who streamed in via a link to a Facebook conference room in Washington D.C. during her testimony last week.

Credit…Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Witness Frances Haugen arrived with a small group of attorneys. The lines aren’t as long as other Facebook hearings, which are full of rows of Facebook lobbyists.

Ms. Haugen is being represented by Whistleblower Aid, a legal nonprofit, whose founder John Tye was approached by the former Facebook product manager this spring. Mr. Tye told the Times that he understood the significance of what Ms. Haugen had access to “within a few minutes” of speaking to her, and began calling her by the alias “Sean” as they sought to put together a whistle-blower complaint for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Whistleblower Aid, which represented the Trump administration’s Ukraine whistle-blower, and Ms. Haugen chose to file with the S.E.C. because of its strong protections for corporate tipsters, Mr. Tye said.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook project manager, will appear before a Senate hearing on Tuesday to push for more regulation of Facebook. Below is an excerpt from the opening statement of her written testimony.

My name is Frances Haugen. I used to work at Facebook and joined because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us. But I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more. The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They cannot solve this crisis without your help. I believe that social media has the potential to enrich our lives and our society. We can have social media we enjoy — one that brings out the best in humanity. The internet has enabled people around the world to receive and share information and ideas in ways never conceived of before. And while the internet has the power to connect an increasingly globalized society, without careful and responsible development, the internet can harm as much as it helps.

Here’s what I’m looking for: fresh new ideas on regulation. The whistleblower Frances Haugen is calling for regulation of the technology and business model that amplifies hate and she’s not shy about comparing Facebook to tobacco. Will lawmakers agree?

Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

Tuesday’s hearing was scheduled after the numerous articles in The Wall Street Journal showed efforts at the company to push more user engagement, potentially amplifying misinformation and hate speech, including during the Capitol riots of January 6.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook project manager, didn’t just take those documents to the Journal. Late this summer, she began to meet with members of Congress, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee.

Months before the whistle-blower contacted their offices, the two lawmakers had been focused on children’s safety online and had held a hearing in May about screen time and how companies like Facebook and TikTok were designing their products to keep children online.

On Aug. 4, the lawmakers wrote a letter to Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, asking for any internal research on the social emotional well-being of children on Instagram. Facebook responded with a letter that played up its apps’ positive effects on children and deflected questions about internal research.

After that letter, Ms. Haugen and her lawyers contacted the lawmakers and shared many documents. With the new information provided by Ms. Haugen and after the Wall Street Journal’s series, the lawmakers announced two hearings focused on Facebook’s negative impact on children.

Last week, the lawmakers held a hearing with Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, who was grilled on how its services hurt young people. The company had already announced, after the Wall Street Journal’s story, that it would suspend plans for a version of Instagram for elementary-aged children.

“It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of our children,” Ms. Blackburn said in a statement. “We need to know the truth about how Facebook approaches several issues key to the online activities of kids and teens.”

This hearing is about Instagram and children, but lawmakers could ask the Facebook whistleblower about much more. Jan. 6th, genocide in Myanmar, hate groups, and what Mark Zuckerberg knew and when, will all be on the table.

The whistleblower, in her first live public appearance, will be a show-stopper. But beyond talk, what will be the path forward with legislation? How do you regulate a company at Facebook’s scale without impeding free expression or focusing on the wrong things?

Credit…Robert Fortunato for CBS News/60MINUTES

Just who is Frances Haugen?

For weeks, the onetime Facebook product manager made waves while behind the scenes. After amassing thousands of pages of Facebook documents while working at the company, she had shared the trove with The Wall Street Journal, lawmakers and regulators, leading to revelations that the social network knew about many of the harms it was causing.

Ms. Haugen only revealed herself on Sunday night. That was when she went on “60 Minutes,” started tweeting, published a personal website, started a GoFundMe and announced a European tour to speak with lawmakers and regulators. The move was timed ahead of a congressional hearing on Tuesday, when Ms. Haugen is set to testify in person on Facebook’s impact on young people.

Details about Ms. Haugen, 37, have since spilled out. A native of Iowa City, Iowa, she studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College and got an M.B.A. from Harvard. She then worked at various Silicon Valley companies, including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.

In June 2019, she joined Facebook. There, she handled democracy and misinformation issues, as well as working on counterespionage as part of the civic misinformation team, according to her personal website.

She left Facebook in May, but not before exfiltrating thousands of pages of internal research and documents. Those documents have formed the basis of a series of Journal articles and a whistle-blower complaint that she and her lawyers have filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Despite her seemingly adversarial position, Ms. Haugen has said she doesn’t hate Facebook and just wants to improve it.

“We can have social media that brings out the best in humanity,” she said on her website.

While she shared some of the company documents with members of Congress and the offices of at least five attorneys general, Ms. Haugen decided not to provide them to the Federal Trade Commission, which has filed an antitrust suit against Facebook. She has said she does not believe that antitrust enforcement is the way to solve the company’s problems.

“The path forward is about transparency and governance,” she said in a video on her GoFundMe page. “It’s not about breaking up Facebook.”

In prepared remarks for the hearing on Tuesday, which were released ahead of time, Ms. Haugen also likened Facebook to tobacco companies and automakers before the government stepped in with regulations for cigarettes and seatbelt laws.

“Congress can change the rules Facebook plays by and stop the harm it is causing,” she said.

Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

A Facebook whistle-blower is taking her campaign to Washington.

Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook who leaked internal documents to The Wall Street Journal that have generated numerous revelations about the company, will testify in a Senate hearing on Tuesday morning.

The hearing, which starts at 10 a.m., is part of Ms. Haugen’s tour aimed at bringing more government oversight to the social media giant. She appeared on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night and is expected to meet with European regulators this month. Ms. Haugen has warned that Facebook does not have the incentive to change its core goal of increasing engagement — even with harmful content — without intervention from regulators.

Here is what to expect at the hearing:

Ms. Haugen will focus on the company’s push to obtain younger and younger users. Some of the research she leaked to The Journal showed that Instagram harmed teenagers by feeding on anxiety and, in some cases, suicidal ideations. The research revealed that one in three teens reported feeling worse about their body image because of Instagram.

“I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more,” Ms. Haugen said in written testimony. “The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people. Congressional action is needed.”

Lawmakers will embrace Ms. Haugen’s testimony. Concerns about the safety of children online have united Republicans and Democrats. They have grown increasingly angry at Facebook for failing to protect young users and for allowing misinformation to spread.

Lawmakers will drill into what knowledge Facebook’s executives had on Instagram’s toxic effect on young users. They will probably ask if Mark Zuckerberg and other leaders were aware of but ignored the research on Instagram’s effect on children and other issues like the spread of hate groups ahead of the Capitol riots.

Lawmakers will probably also ask Ms. Haugen how the company’s systems work to promote toxic content. They will also focus on how tools like beauty filters, comments and Facebook’s “like” button can hook young users to Instagram.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut and the chair of the panel on consumer protection, product safety and data security will highlight an experiment his office ran, in which it created an account for a fake 13-year-old user who expressed interest in weight loss. The account was nudged into a rabbit hole of content promoting eating disorders and other self-harms, he said in an interview.

“I want to talk about her perceptions about what she read in those documents and the use of algorithms to increase profits but also to exacerbate the harms,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

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