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Senators question Facebook whistleblower

Atchison Globe | Matt Hoffman

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and other members of a subcommittee questioned a Facebook whistleblower about the company’s practices this week.

The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, released thousands of pages of previously internal documents involving the company’s research.

Moran on Tuesday asked Haugen for an example of Facebook knowing a decision would be harmful to users but proceeding with the plan anyway.

“For example, in the case of bullying, Facebook knows that Instagram dramatically changes the experience of high school,” Haugen said. “When I was in high school, most kids had a positive home life and could go home and reset for 16 hours. But now the bullying follows them home; it follows them into their bedrooms.”

Haugen said she worried about how current social media culture will pervade future relationships for today’s youth.

“Kids are learning that their own friends are cruel to them,” she said. “Facebook knows because parents didn’t experience these things ... they give their children bad advice.”

In Facebook’s internal research, Haugen said that the company is aware of children expressing “feelings of loneliness” but that the company hasn’t reformed its policies to combat the problem.

Haugen is a 37-year-old data expert from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in business from Harvard. Before being recruited by Facebook, she worked for 15 years at tech companies including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.

Moran also asked if the company had internal policies that were harmful to groups other than youth.

“Engagement-based ranking didn’t care if you bullied someone or committed hate speech in the comments,” she said. “Facebook also knows that engagement-based ranking is dangerous without integrity and security systems, but then not rolling out those integrity and security systems to most of the languages in the world.”

When asked what government intervention could be used to regulate social media, Haugen pointed to algorithms.

“User-generated content is something that companies have less control over, (but) they have 100% control over algorithms,” Haugen said. “Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth over public safety.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is also a member of the Senate subcommittee that questioned Haugen.

Blunt didn’t ask any questions, but a spokesperson said he was “monitoring” the hearing.

In a note to Facebook employees Tuesday, Zuckerberg disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users, or that pushes divisive content.

“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” Zuckerberg wrote.