Live updates: Facebook whistleblower goes public with her allegations of deception

Published October 4, 2021 at 7:46 AM EDT
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is seated during an interview with Scott Pelley for a CBS News 60 Minutes program.
Robert Fortunato for CBS News/60 Minutes via Reuters
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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is interviewed by Scott Pelley for a CBS News "60 Minutes" interview that aired on Sunday.

A Facebook whistleblower says the social network puts profits over safety, and has handed thousands of pages of internal company documents to federal law enforcement.

The former Facebook data scientist revealed her identity in a televised interview on Sunday night.

Who is the whistleblower: Frances Haugen is a specialist in how algorithms affect what we see on social media, and worked at Facebook on a team focused on the spread of election-related misinformation.

The allegations: Haugen says Facebook has misrepresented the prevalence of hate speech on the platform, hid reports on Instagram's impact on teen girls' mental health and more. Read more about her formal complaints.

Facebook's response: The company points to its investment in monitoring for harmful content and disputes the way its research on teen's mental health has been reported in the media.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Dana Farrington, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial sponsors.

Technology

Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp are all down

Posted October 4, 2021 at 12:27 PM EDT

Meanwhile, Facebook, its messaging app and two other platforms it owns — Instagram and WhatsApp — all went offline around midday eastern time on Monday, in what appears to be a global outage.

Users are unable to refresh the apps or reach the web pages, getting a server error message instead.

Such outages are not uncommon, but this one comes while Facebook is facing extra scrutiny.

"We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products," tweeted Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone. "We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience."

The WhatsApp Twitter account also acknowledged some users are experiencing issues with the app, adding, "We’re working to get things back to normal and will send an update here as soon as possible."

TechCrunch reports that the outage appears to have been caused by a DNS (domain name server) fail.

It explains that has to do with the naming structure behind the web's infrastructure: "So, if you try to navigate to facebook.com right now, the internet won’t know where to find facebook.com."

This is a developing story. Stay tuned for updates.

Misinformation

How to spot fake news for yourself

Posted October 4, 2021 at 10:44 AM EDT
Illustration of a person holding a magnifying glass to a wall of social feeds, trying to spot misinformation.
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
To avoid misinformation, ask some questions of what you're reading or seeing: Is it paid for by a company or politician or other biased source? Is there good evidence? And are the numbers presented in context?

One of the criticisms of Facebook has long been that it isn't doing enough to tamp down on disinformation and could actually be feeding the wide political divisions in the U.S.

Facebook notes that it has been investing in monitoring harmful content on its platforms, including attempting to combat disinformation.

But fake news is ubiquitous nowadays, and often can be hard to distinguish from real news. Back in 2019, NPR’s Miles Parks and Sylvie Douglis put together a guide on how to spot disinformation for Life Kit. Their tips still hold true:

1. Exercise skepticism

Take in any new information, whether it's the news or on social media or from a buddy at happy hour, with a bit of doubt. Expect the source to prove their work and show how they came to their conclusion. And try to compare information from a number of different outlets, even if you have a favorite.

2. Understand the misinformation landscape

Misinformation, as a concept, isn't new. But the social media platforms are constantly changing in the hopes of increasing their influence in the media world. Those platforms have no financial obligation to tell the truth — their business models depend on user engagement. Reducing your dependence on social media will be good for your news judgment (and your sleep).

3. Pay extra attention when reading about emotionally charged and divisive topics

Misinformation is most effective at creating confusion around hot-button issues and immediate news. Ask yourself: Is this a complicated subject, something that's hitting an emotional trigger? Is it a breaking news story where the facts aren't yet able to be fully assembled? If the answer is yes, then you need to be ultra-skeptical.

4. Investigate what you're reading or seeing

What does that skepticism look like in practice? It means asking some questions of what you're reading or seeing: Is the content paid for by a company or politician or other potentially biased source? Is there good evidence? And are the numbers presented in context?

(The News Literacy Project created an app to help people test and strengthen their media literacy skills.)

5. Yelling probably won't solve misinformation

It's important to value the truth, but correcting people is always delicate. If someone in your life is spreading objective falsehoods and you want to help, be humble. Don't assume bad intentions or stupidity, just meet the other person where they are and be curious — think about opening with common ground and a question. Try to have the conversation in person or at least in a private online setting, like an email.


Read more stories from NPR about disinformation, including the role that social media plays in spreading it.

Congress

What to expect when the Facebook whistleblower testifies in front of Congress

Posted October 4, 2021 at 10:09 AM EDT

The Facebook whistleblower is due in Congress tomorrow to testify on the social media giant's handling of misinformation and hate speech on its platform, as well as how the company protects kids and teens who use its sites.

Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen will testify on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security.

The full title of the hearing is “Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower.”

As NPR's Jaclyn Diaz reports, it's expected her testimony will allege that the company deceived the public and its investors about its ability to deal with hate speech and misinformation on the platform.

The subcommittee's chair is Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said on Twitter that the documents Haugen released "show Facebook’s raw greed in dragging children to dark places & deepening insecurities, leading to online bullying, eating disorders, self-injury, even suicide."

Haugen and her attorney John Tye shared that they have filed at least eight complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleging differences between what Facebook knew internally about its social media network and what it said publicly.

Facebook denies the claims of negligence and says that the company's research about its impact on teens has been taken out of context.

The committee hearing will be broadcast online here beginning tomorrow at 10 a.m. ET. We'll also be covering the testimony on NPR.org and on air.

History

Frances Haugen is the latest in a long line of U.S. whistleblowers

Posted October 4, 2021 at 9:53 AM EDT

For pretty much as long as there's been a United States, there have been whistleblowers.

And it's been a risky and controversial practice all along, despite certain legal safeguards that exist in places like Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The U.S. passed the world's first whistleblower protection law in 1778.

"So we're a leader in this realm and whistleblowing is really in our DNA," said Allison Stanger, author of Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump.

NPR's Brian Naylor spoke to Stanger and other experts in the fall of 2019, when a whistleblower complaint triggered the first impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump's presidency.

Read and listen to his reporting here. Plus, check out this Planet Money episode about one of the top whistleblower lawyers on Wall Street.

The Facebook Files

Facebook's own research says Instagram is harmful to teenage girls

Posted October 4, 2021 at 9:40 AM EDT

One of the allegations in the Wall Street Journal's "Facebook Files," pulled from internal documents, is that the company knows its platforms are detrimental to the mental health of young users, and teenage girls in particular.

That's despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg's congressional testimony earlier this year, in which he claimed that research into the impacts of social media on children's mental health is not conclusive (here's why these researchers disagree).

The Journal report alleges that for the past three years, Facebook has analyzed how the photo-sharing app Instagram — which it also owns — affects teenage users, and found that it is harmful for a sizable percentage of them.

This reporting emerged as lawmakers had been pushing Facebook to abandon its plans for a version of Instagram for kids under the age of the 13. Facebook said last week, after the Wall Street Journal story published, that it would put that plan on hold to address concerns about the vulnerability of younger users.

Lawmakers also questioned Facebook's global head of safety at a Senate hearinglastThursday, where they accused the company of concealing data about Facebook and Instagram's impact on mental health and asked questions about what the company knew, and when. (Facebook has said the JournalJ's reporting took its research out of context.)

Jeff Horwitz, one of the reporters behind the investigation, spoke to All Things Considered last week about what he made of that hearing. Listen to that conversation here.

Context

The allegation of boosting engagement over fixing flaws

Posted October 4, 2021 at 9:27 AM EDT

Facebook was already facing heightened scrutiny because of the "The Facebook Files," a four-part investigation by The Wall Street Journal based on thousands of pages of company documents leaked by the whistleblower we now know as Frances Haugen.

As NPR's Jaclyn Diaz explains: "So far the paper has revealed how anti-COVID-19 vaccine information flourished on Facebook. It also showed how separate rules allegedly apply to celebrities and politicians on the site. Facebook allowed VIP users to, for a time, avoid penalties for bad behavior, according to the report."

Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Horwitz is part of the team behind "The Facebook Files." He spoke to NPR several times last month about the reporting process, their findings and Facebook's response.

One of the central takeaways, as he explained it, is that Facebook is allegedly not taking steps that it could to mitigate harms to users.

Company documents reportedly show that Facebook knows it exposes users to things like misinformation, violent imagery, human trafficking and calls for violence against specific ethnic groups — but doesn't use the tools it has at its disposal to stop them.

"The company realized that promoting engagement and creating sort of algorithms that promote engagement ended up promoting really angry content, and that you could see internally that Facebook researchers were worried that they were making politics and political discourse around the world much, much more contentious and vitriolic," Horwitz told Morning Edition on Sept. 17. "And they realized this but then didn't want to roll back the changes that they'd made to their algorithm because that would hit their growth metrics."

Facebook issued a statement accusing the stories of containing "deliberate mischaracterizations" and conferring "egregiously false motives" to its leadership and staff.

Hear more from Horwitz on Morning Edition.

PLUS: Listen to his interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Consequences

What legal protections the whistleblower does and does not have

Posted October 4, 2021 at 8:21 AM EDT

The Securities and Exchange Commission has a special whistleblower program that allows someone like Frances Haugen to expose a company and be provided with a legal shield.

Her disclosures to Congress are also protected. That said, her leaking some of the documents to the media does make her vulnerable.

There are no legal safeguards for that. Legal experts contacted by NPR said Facebook could come after her in court for something like breach of contract.

Facebook wouldn't comment on whether that was even on the table, but it's one possibility, and it's something we'll be keeping an eye on.

Here's more on the risks Haugen is taking and the choices ahead of Facebook.

SEC Complaints

A look at the whistleblower's formal complaints

Posted October 4, 2021 at 7:55 AM EDT

John Tye, a lawyer representing Frances Haugen, confirmed to NPR that they have filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The allegations involve the difference between what Facebook knew about its platform and what it said publicly.

Specifically, the complaints focused on the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook; alleged misrepresentations about Facebook's role in the siege on the Capitol; and how Facebook's own research showed that Instagram is toxic for teen girls' mental health, despite Mark Zuckerberg indicating the opposite in public.

"You can't lie to your investors. You can’t withhold important information that would help them decide whether to invest in the company. And we certainly allege that Facebook has done exactly that on a very wide scale on a whole lot of particular issues."
Lawyer John Tye to NPR

Tech And Ethics

Who is the Facebook whistleblower?

Posted October 4, 2021 at 7:47 AM EDT

Here's what you need to know about the whistleblower.

Her name is Frances Haugen. She's something of a specialist in how algorithms affect what we see on social media.

She spent two years at Facebook working on a team focused on figuring out how election-related misinformation spreads. She previously worked at Google and Pinterest.

Over time, she became disillusioned. She felt like her team was understaffed, and that Facebook wasn't taking seriously how its platform was affecting societies around the world.

Eventually, Facebook shut down her team altogether. Weeks later, the Capitol riots happened. Haugen says Facebook underplayed its role helping organizers plan the riots. She kept noticing that Facebook's public statements didn't match what the company's own research was saying. She had a crisis of conscience.

And she decided she had a moral duty to obtain and leak thousands of internal Facebook research to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the media. Here's how Haugen said it herself in a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday:

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook and Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
Frances Haugen

Watch the full interview, including Facebook's response, here:

Facebook's Response

Whistleblower's '60 Minutes' interview puts Facebook on the defensive again

Posted October 4, 2021 at 7:35 AM EDT

Facebook is again defending itself against claims it puts profit ahead of safety — this time from one of its own employees.

On Sunday, Frances Haugen, who spent two years fighting political and election interference on the social network’s civic integrity team, gave a damning interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes, in which she accused Facebook of lying to the public and its own investors about the harms caused by its platforms.

Haugen, who left Facebook earlier this year, outed herself as the whistleblower who copied tens of thousands of pages of internal documents and handed many over to the Wall Street Journal, the Securities and Exchange Commission and members of Congress.

“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she told 60 Minutes. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money."

She said the company knows it's accelerating hate, political unrest, misinformation, mental health harms and other problems, but has failed to fix them if it means hampering its own growth.

About two hours after the interview aired, Facebook sent reporters a lengthy statement from director of policy communications Lena Pietsch, titled “Missing Facts from Tonight’s 60 Minutes Segment.”

Pietsch responded to several of Haugen’s claims with defenses the company has been using for months as it has come under mounting scrutiny for its role in the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the acceleration of extremism and conspiracy theories in public discourse.

She pointed to Facebook’s investment in staff and artificial intelligence to monitor for harmful content; said the company supports updated regulations for tech companies; disputed the way Facebook’s own research on teenagers’ mental health has been reported and rejected the claim that the social network has furthered political polarization.

As for Haugen’s claim Facebook has lied to its own investors — something her lawyers say they’ve filed at least eight complaints with the SEC about — Pietsch said the company stands by its public statements.

“Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place. We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true,” she said.

Haugen’s document dump has turned into a crisis for the company — and one that’s unlikely to end soon. On Tuesday, she’s set to testify before the Senate.