Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony could be crucial

By Mark Sullivan

October 04, 2021

This summer, I asked my mother if I could see her Facebook newsfeed. I was surprised by how much political content I saw—much of it on politically charged topics such as President Biden, abortion, vaccination, mask mandates, and Donald Trump. Some of it came from my mother’s septuagenarian friends, some came from advocacy orgs she had given to, and most of it had a callous, mocking tone for people on the other side of the political spectrum.

The major point made by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen on 60 Minutes Sunday night was that all this is by design.

“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 said during the interview. “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, who is 37, worked in Facebook’s election integrity unit until the company dissolved the group after the 2020 election. A former employee at Google, Pinterest, and Yelp, she’s the source of the leaked documents that were the subject of The Wall Street Journal’s damning series about how Facebook knowingly favors certain user groups and knowingly harms others.

While Haugen’s 60 Minutes segment was unexpectedly overshadowed today by Facebook’s hours-long global outage, she’s not going anywhere. She will testify on Capitol Hill before a Senate Commerce subcommittee tomorrow—and will come with receipts, in the form of thousands of leaked internal Facebook documents. Reuters is reporting that she will urge legislators to step in and legislate the company.

Facebook, of course, denies Haugen’s core contention. “We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content,” said Facebook spokeswoman Lena Pietsch in a response to 60 Minutes. “To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”

Pietsch’s protestations, however, are undercut by her company’s own research. I’m convinced that the polarizing content is a big reason my mother keeps reaching for her phone throughout the day. She’s addicted, just like millions of Americans, to that little feeling of “in your face, fools, I and my tribe are right again!” That same little thrill is delivered to people on both sides of the political divide–Facebook wins either way.

Facebook isn’t the only media company that’s figured out the power of partisan venom and its ability to keep consumers engaged. Fox News figured it out long ago. And its rivals CNN and MSNBC, not wanting to miss out, gradually joined the game, each given plenty of cover by the daily extremes of Donald Trump. But Facebook is a media aggregation layer that collects content from all these TV outlets, and virtually all other kinds of digital media. It’s the sharing and conversation layer. After Tucker Carlson’s latest segment appears on Fox, clips of it jump to the Facebook layer and begin to spread.

After years of controversy over its impact on society, Facebook remains wildly profitable and is still growing. Brand advertisers say there’s just no better deal out there. Facebook recently said that almost 3 billion people (that’s two of every five people on earth) used one of its platforms—Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp—last month. A January study by Pew Research found that 36% of Americans regularly come to Facebook for their news.

In other words, more than a third of U.S. consumers allow Facebook to provide a primary view into the world outside their town. It’s having its effects. A new survey from the University of Virginia released late last week found that more than half of Trump supporters (52%) and more than four in ten (41%) Biden supporters agree (strongly or somewhat) that it’s “time to split the country.” That is, they support the idea of the red states separating from the blue ones to form two (very) different countries. Eighty percent of Biden voters and 84% of Trump voters view the other side as a “clear and present threat to American democracy.”

As conservative commentator David French points out in his newsletter (“A Whiff of Civil War in the Air”), all this partisan loathing seems to have almost everything to do with identity and emotion, and little to do with policy. Republicans expressed surprisingly high levels of support for the actual policies in the Biden Infrastructure Plan, for example, but at the same time said they saw little difference between “Democrats” and “socialists.” Meanwhile, the Democrats polled said they saw little difference between “Republicans” and “fascists.”

It’s not a coincidence that these stereotypes reflect exactly how the two sides are presented to each other–often in memes–on social media.

Of course you can’t lay the country’s polarization problem at Facebook’s feet alone. There are too many players profiting from partisan rage to single out just one. But Haugen drove an important point home on national TV on Sunday, and will likely expand on it in her testimony. Facebook knows what it’s doing, and has chosen to continue doing it because that’s where the growth comes from. And for Facebook and its investors, growth is everything.

Facebook is widely mistrusted among legislators. The company is continually tongue-lashed by congresspeople during the Big Tech hearings that happen more and more often in the capital. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has some killer soundbites, but nothing much in the way of actual legislation has come of it. Congress can’t even pass a privacy bill, even though California led the way in 2018 and several states have followed.

Haugen’s appearance will put a face to the narrative that Facebook is something like the tobacco industry, and that its product is a guilty pleasure that poses a real threat to the health of the country. That—and the documentation she will bring—could prompt lawmakers to stop talking about the company’s effect on society and start doing something about it.