A former Facebook employee has told British politicians that “anger and hate is the easiest way to grow on Facebook”.
Whistleblower Frances Haugen told MPs at Westminster on Monday that she was concerned that Facebook incentivises hateful advertising by giving it more traction so that angry messages were cheaper to produce than positive ones.
“Anger and hate is the easiest way to grow on Facebook. We are literally subsidising hate on these platforms. It is substantially cheaper to run an angry hateful divisive ad than it is to run a compassionate, empathetic ad,” she told the parliamentary committee scrutinising a draft Online Harms Bill that prime minister Boris Johnson has promised to introduce before the end of the year.
“Facebook has been trying to make people spend more time on Facebook, and the only way they can do that is by multiplying the content that already exists on the platform with things like groups and reshares. One group might produce hundreds of pieces of content a day, but only three get delivered. Only the ones most likely to spread will go out.”
Prioritising profit over safety
Ms Haugen also accused the company of knowing that Instagram was dangerous for young users but not being willing to sacrifice “even a slither of profit” to keep them safe. Ms Haugen told MPs that Facebook’s own research found Instagram was more dangerous than TikTok and Snapchat because it focused on comparisons of bodies and lifestyles.
“I am deeply worried that it may not be possible to make Instagram safe for 14-year-olds and I sincerely doubt it is possible to make it safe for a 10-year-old,” Ms Haugen’s testimony coincided with the publication in the Wall Street Journal of more documents she leaked from Facebook showing how the company failed to protect vulnerable users. She told the committee that the company’s social media had ensured that bullying followed children home from school.
“Facebook’s own research says now the bullying follows children home, it goes into their bedrooms. The last thing they see at night is someone being cruel to them. The first thing they see in the morning is a hateful statement and that is just so much worse,” she said.
The world’s biggest social network has rejected the charges, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying earlier this month that it was deeply illogical to argue that Facebook deliberately pushed content that made people angry.
“Contrary to what was discussed at the hearing, we’ve always had the commercial incentive to remove harmful content from our sites. People don’t want to see it when they use our apps and advertisers don’t want their ads next to it,” Facebook said in a statement on Monday. It said it had spent $13 billion on keeping users safe and agreed regulation was needed across the industry, adding that it was pleased Britain is moving ahead with online safety laws.
Ms Haugen has called on the United States Congress to create a federal regulator to oversee social media giants and British lawmakers are considering a similar approach. The killing of Conservative MP David Amess has amplified calls for tougher action to clamp down on hate-filled social media posts particularly by anonymous users.
“I am deeply concerned that they have made a product that can lead people away from their real communities and isolate them in these rabbit holes and these filter bubbles. What you find is that when people are sent targeted misinformation to a community it can make it hard to reintegrate into wider society because now you don’t have shared facts,” Ms Haugen said.
She said she had chosen to come forward now because it was a critical time to act, comparing Facebook’s failures to an environmental disaster.
“When we see something like an oil spill, that oil spill doesn’t make it harder for a society to regulate oil companies. But right now the failures of Facebook are making it harder for us to regulate Facebook,” she said.
– Additional reporting Reuters