European politicians call for Facebook investigation after US whistleblower revelation

BRUSSELS (REUTERS, AFP) – Two members of the European parliament have called for an investigation into allegations by a whistleblower that Facebook prioritised profits above the public good.

The whistleblower, Ms Frances Haugen, who had worked as a product manager on the civic misinformation team at Facebook, shared internal documents with newspapers and attorneys general from several United States states.

A statement from European Parliament lawmakers said they were requesting further investigations into the revelations.

“The Facebook Files – and the revelations that the whistleblower has presented to us – underscores just how important it is that we do not let the large tech companies regulate themselves,” said Danish lawmaker Christel Schaldemose.

Ms Schaldemose is the lead rapporteur for the Digital Services Act, announced by the European Commission in December last year that requires tech companies to do more to tackle illegal content.

“The documents finally put all the facts on the table to allow us to adopt a stronger Digital Services Act,” Ms Alexandra Geese, a German lawmaker at the European parliament, said.

“We need to regulate the whole system and the business model that favours disinformation and violence over factual content – and enables its rapid dissemination,” she said.

Both Ms Geese and Ms Schaldemose said they are in touch with Ms Haugen.

A Facebook spokesman said: “Every day, we make difficult decisions on where to draw lines between free expression and harmful speech, privacy, security, and other issues.

“But we should not be making these decisions on our own … We’ve been advocating for updated regulations where democratic governments set industry standards to which we can all adhere.”

European Union regulators have been considering whether all online platforms, or only larger ones or those at particular risk of exposure to illegal activities by their users, should be subjected to take-down notices, and how prescriptive these should be.

“Our position is clear: the power of major platforms over public debate and social life must be subject to democratically validated rules, in particular on transparency and accountability,” an European Commission spokesman said when asked about the allegations against Facebook.

Tech companies have said it was unfair and not technically feasible for them to police the Internet. The current EU e-commerce directive says intermediary service providers play a technical, automatic and passive role.

Ms Haugen will testify before a US Senate subcommittee on Tuesday (Oct 5), and is expected to speak at the Web Summit conference in Portugal in early November.

She had shared a trove of Facebook documents alleging the social media giant knew its products were fuelling hate and harming children’s mental health.

Her identity was revealed on Sunday in a televised interview, and she accused the company of choosing “profit over safety”.

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Ms Haugen, a 37-year-old data scientist from Iowa, has worked for companies including Google and Pinterest – but said in an interview with CBS news show 60 Minutes that Facebook was “substantially worse” than anything she had seen before.

She called for the company to be regulated. “Facebook over and over again has shown it chooses profit over safety. It is subsidising, it is paying for its profits with our safety,” Ms Haugen said.

“The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world,” she said.

The world’s largest social media platform has been embroiled in a firestorm brought about by Ms Haugen, who as an unnamed whistleblower shared documents with US lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal that detailed how Facebook knew its products, including Instagram, were harming young girls, especially around body image.

US Senator Richard Blumenthal responded to the interview, saying in a statement: “Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself. We must consider stronger oversight.”

In the 60 Minutes interview, Ms Haugen explained how the company’s News Feed algorithm is optimised for content that gets a reaction.

The company’s own research shows that it is “easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions”, Ms Haugen said.

“Facebook has realised 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.”

During the 2020 US presidential election, she said, the company realised the danger that such content presented and turned on safety systems to reduce it.

But “as soon as the election was over they turn them back off, or they change the settings back to what they were before, to prioritise growth over safety, and that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me”, she said.

“No one at Facebook is malevolent,” she said, adding that co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not set out to make a “hateful” platform. But, Ms Haugen said, the incentives are “misaligned”.

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‘Ludicrous’

Facebook’s vice-president of policy and global affairs Nick Clegg vehemently pushed back at the assertion its platforms are “toxic” for teens, days after a tense congressional hearing in which US lawmakers grilled the company over its impact on the mental health of young users.

While Ms Haugen did not draw a straight line between the decision to roll back safety systems and the US Capitol riot on Jan 6, 60 Minutes noted that the social network was used by some of the organisers of that violence.

During an appearance on CNN, Mr Clegg dismissed the link.

“I think the assertion (that) Jan 6 can be explained because of social media, I just think that’s ludicrous,” Mr Clegg told the broadcaster, saying it was “false comfort” to believe technology was driving America’s deepening political polarisation.

Polarisation

The New York Times reported Saturday that Mr Clegg sought to pre-empt Ms Haugen’s interview by penning a 1,500-word memo to staff alerting them of the “misleading” accusations.

Facebook has encountered criticism that it fuels societal problems, attacks Mr Clegg said should not rest at Facebook’s feet. But he acknowledged that people with pre-existing issues may not benefit from social media use.

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He also disputed reporting in an explosive Wall Street Journal series that Facebook’s own research warned of the harm that photo-sharing app Instagram can do to teen girls’ well-being.

“It’s simply not borne out by our research or anybody else’s that Instagram is bad or toxic for all teens,” Mr Clegg told CNN, but added Facebook’s research would continue.

Facing pressure, the company had previously announced it would suspend but not abandon the development of a version of Instagram meant for users younger than 13.

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