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The Facebook whistleblower hearing unearthed the danger of engagement algorithms

The Facebook whistleblower hearing unearthed the danger of engagement algorithms


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On Tuesday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before a Senate Commerce Committee subcommittee in one of the most significant hearings for the company over the last few years.

Haugen’s testimony followed bombshell reporting from the Wall Street Journal last month that detailed the ways in which Facebook’s products can inflict harm on users. The Journal stories were based on a series of internal reports at Facebook that Haugen leaked to the newspaper. One specific set of reports suggested that Facebook knew Instagram was “toxic” for teenage users, especially young girls. 

“Facebook has put profits ahead of people,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said on Tuesday. “I hope we will discuss whether there is such a thing as a safe algorithm.”

Throughout her testimony, Haugen painted a picture of Facebook as both “internally dysfunctional” and unwilling to change its behaviors unless Congress, or some outside regulatory authority, decided to step in. 

“It is unaccountable until the incentives change,” Haugen said. “Facebook will not change.”

At the end of the hearing, lawmakers appeared eager to act and determined to pass legislation addressing the harms Facebook’s algorithms can cause.

“Here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens is over,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) said at Tuesday’s hearing. “Congress will be taking action. You can work with us or not work with us, but we will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracies any longer.”