You knew Facebook was making the world shittier, but it’s so much worse than you realized.
A Facebook whistleblower who brought internal documents detailing the company’s research to The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Congress unmasked herself ahead of an interview she gave to “60 Minutes,” which aired Sunday night.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published internal research from Facebook showing that the social media company knows precisely how toxic its own product is for the people who use it. But tonight, we learned how the Journal obtained those documents: A whistleblower named Frances Haugen, who spoke with CBS News’ 60 Minutes about the ways Facebook is poisoning society.
The 37-year-old whistleblower liberated “tens of thousands” of pages of documents from Facebook and even plans to testify to Congress at some point this week. Haugen has filed at least eight complaints with the SEC alleging that Facebook has lied to shareholders about its own product.
Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, according to her website, revealed herself as the source behind a trove of leaked documents. On her personal website, she shared that during her time at the company, she “became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety — putting people’s lives at risk. As a last resort and at great personal risk, Frances made the courageous act to blow the whistle on Facebook.”
Fundamentally, Haugen alleges there’s a key conflict between what’s good for Facebook and what’s good for society at large. At the end of the day, things that are good for Facebook tend to be bad for the world we live in, according to Haugen. We’ve pulled out some of the most interesting tidbits from Sunday’s interview that highlight this central point.
Haugen previously worked as a product manager at Pinterest, Yelp and Google, according to her LinkedIn profile. She also lists herself as the technical co-founder behind the dating app Hinge, saying she took its precursor, Secret Agent Cupid, to market.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” Haugen told “60 Minutes.”
Haugen told “60 Minutes” she left Facebook in May.
Jeff Horwitz, the Journal reporter who wrote the series of articles based on the leaked documents, also shared Haugen’s identity on Twitter on Sunday night, revealing her as the key source behind the stories.
1) Facebook’s algorithm intentionally shows users things to make them angry
Haugen explained to 60 Minutes how Facebook’s algorithm chooses content that’s likely to make users angry because that causes the most engagement. And user engagement is what Facebook turns into ad dollars.
“Its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing, it’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money,” Haugen continued.
2) Facebook is worse than most other social media companies
Whenever we talk about social media and the ways it’s harmed society, a lot of Big Tech companies get lumped in together, whether it’s Twitter or YouTube or Pinterest. But, according to Haugen, Facebook is uniquely awful.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
Haugen previously worked at Pinterest and Google, and insists that Facebook really is worse than the rest of Big Tech in substantial ways.
3) Facebook dissolved its Civic Integrity unit after the 2020 election and before the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection
Haugen worked at the so-called Civic Integrity unit of Facebook, in charge of combating political misinformation on the platform. But the social media company seemed to think they were in the clear after the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 and that Civic Integrity could be shut down.
“They told us, ‘We’re dissolving Civic Integrity.’ Like, they basically said, ‘Oh good, we made it through the election. There wasn’t riots. We can get rid of Civic Integrity now.’ Fast forward a couple months, we got the insurrection,” Haugen said.
It’s important to remember that Facebook isn’t just destroying American democracy, it’s chipping away at democratic institutions all around the world.
4) Political parties in Europe ran negative ads because it was the only way to reach people on Facebook
One of the documents Haugen smuggled out of the company shows that political parties in Europe had to start running negative ads to get any engagement on Facebook.
Summarizing the position of political parties in Europe, Haugen explained, “You are forcing us to take positions that we don’t like, that we know are bad for society. We know if we don’t take those positions, we won’t win in the marketplace of social media.”
5) Facebook only identifies a tiny fraction of hate and misinformation on the platform
Facebook’s internal research shows that it identifies roughly; 3-5% of hate on the platform and less than 1% of violence and incitement, according to one of the studies leaked by Haugen. And yet Facebook still considers itself to be the best in the world at identifying hate and incitement on social media.
Facebook takes issue with this characterization, naturally. In fact, the company seems to think the real problem is the internet itself, at least, according to a statement the company sent Gizmodo on Sunday night.
“If any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments, and society would have solved them a long time ago,” a spokesperson for Facebook told Gizmodo. “We have a strong track record of using our research — as well as external research and close collaboration with experts and organizations — to inform changes to our apps.”
6) Instagram is making kids miserable
Facebook owns Instagram, and as 60 Minutes points out, the documents leaked by Haugen show that 13.5% of teen girls say Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse, and 17% say it makes their eating disorders worse.
“What’s super tragic is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this— this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. And it actually makes them use the app more. And so, they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
And that’s all part of the business model. Facebook is making lots and lots of money from this misery. But Facebook obviously has a different take.
“We do internal research to ask hard questions and find out how we can best improve the experience for teens and we will continue doing this work to improve Instagram and all of our apps. It is not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” Lena Pietsch, Director of Policy Communications, told Gizmodo via email.
“The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced. This research, like external research on these issues, found teens report having both positive and negative experiences with social media,” Pietsch continued.
7) Employees at Facebook aren’t necessarily evil, they just have perverse incentives
Haugen says that the people who work at Facebook aren’t bad people, which seems like the kind of thing someone who previously worked at Facebook might say.
“No one at Facebook is malevolent, but the incentives are misaligned, right?” Haugen insists. “Like, Facebook makes more money when you consume more content. People enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction. And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact and the more they consume.”
And while it’s easy to see why Haugen might believe “no one” at Facebook is malevolent, that’s quite a bold claim at this point. Facebook’s negative impact on society isn’t exactly a secret here in the 2020s.
Again, Facebook doesn’t see it that way.
“Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits,” Lena Pietsch told Gizmodo via email Sunday night. “To say we turn a blind eye to feedback ignores these investments, including the 40,000 people working on safety and security at Facebook and our investment of $13 billion since 2016.”
8) Haugen even has empathy of Zuck for some stupid reason
“I have a lot of empathy for Mark. And Mark has never set out to make a hateful platform. But he has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful, polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach,”
But as Haugen herself said, it doesn’t really matter whether Zuckerberg set out to make a hateful platform. In reality, he set out to make a website for rating the hotness of women, but that’s really neither here nor there. What matters is how the platform is being used and abused today.
9) Haugen believes she’s covered by whistleblower laws, but we’ll see
When 60 Minutes talked with Haugen’s lawyer, John Tye, who works with whistleblowers, we heard about how the law protects people who talk with the SEC.
“The Dodd-Frank Act, passed over ten years ago at this point, created an Office of the Whistleblower inside the SEC. And one of the provisions of that law says that no company can prohibit its employees from communicating with the SEC and sharing internal corporate documents with the SEC,” Tye told 60 Minutes.
And while Dodd-Frank hypothetically protects employees talking with the SEC, it doesn’t necessarily protect people talking with journalists and taking thousands of pages of documents. But we’re going to find out pretty quickly just how much protection whistleblowers actually get in the U.S. Historically, let’s just say the answer has been “not much.”
Internal research by Facebook (which owns Instagram) found that Instagram was impacting the mental health of teenagers but did not share its findings when they suggested that the platform was a “toxic” place for many youngsters.
According to slides reported by the Wall Street Journal, 32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
Ms. Haugen will testify before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday in a hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online”, about the company’s research into Instagram’s effect on the mental health of young users.
Last week, a Facebook executive testified to US senators that the leaks had failed to highlight the positive impact the platform had on teens.
However, Ms. Haugen was damning in her assessment of her former employer.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she said.
“Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
Ms Haugen also talked about the deadly Capitol Hill riots in January – claiming that Facebook helped fuel the violence.
She said Facebook turned on safety systems to reduce misinformation during the US election – but only temporarily.
“As soon as the election was over they turned them back off, or they changed the settings to what they were before, to prioritize growth over safety, and that really feels like a betrayal of democracy.”
Appearing on CNN, Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said it was ludicrous to suggest Facebook was responsible for the riots.
“I think it gives people false comfort to assume that there must be a technological, or technical, explanation for the issues of political polarization in the United States,” he said.