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Whistleblower claims Facebook choose ‘profit over safety’

The whistleblower who shared a trove of Facebook documents alleging the social media giant knew its products were fuelling hate and harming children’s mental health revealed her identity on Sunday in a televised interview, and accused the company of choosing “profit over safety”.

Frances 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 the documents with US lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal that detail how Facebook knew its products, including Instagram, were harming young girls.

In the 60 Minutes interview she explained how the algorithm, which picks what to show in a user’s News Feed, 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,” 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 the incentives are “misaligned”.

“Facebook makes more money when you consume more content … And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact, the more they consume.”

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

Earlier on Sunday, Facebook dismissed as “ludicrous” suggestions it contributed to the January 6 riot.

Facebook’s vice president of policy and global affairs Nick Clegg also 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.

“Social media has had a big impact on society in recent years, and Facebook is often a place where much of this debate plays out,” Mr Clegg wrote to Facebook employees in a memo on Friday ahead of the interview. “But what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarisation.”

In a written statement to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone also pushed back against the allegations, saying, “to suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true”.

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