Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has released a lengthy statement responding to whistleblower Frances Haugen’s scathing testimony Tuesday about the platform’s alleged harmful effects on democracy and children, which she said executives were aware of but ignored, putting “profits over people.”
Zuckerberg posted a letter to Facebook late Tuesday, saying he shared the note with company employees following Monday’s massive outage, which he addressed first, before responding to the whistleblower’s allegations.
“Second, now that today’s testimony is over, I wanted to reflect on the public debate we’re in. I’m sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know. We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health,” Zuckerberg wrote. “At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.”
Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, smuggled out copies of thousands of internal documents she’s shown to lawmakers alleging Facebook’s knowledge of its platforms’ negative impact on teenagers and young girls and its dismissal of how hate speech and misinformation are emphasized on their sites. She revealed her identity during an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” and has been cooperating with a Senate Commerce subcommittee as part of its ongoing efforts to assess potential regulation of the platform.
“There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled, and in the end, the buck stops with Mark,” Haugen told lawmakers. “There’s no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
Zuckerberg’s response, nearly 1,300 words, included a series of eight seemingly rhetorical questions.
“Many of the claims don’t make any sense,” he wrote. “If we wanted to ignore research, why would we create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues in the first place? If we didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would we employ so many more people dedicated to this than any other company in our space — even ones larger than us? If we wanted to hide our results, why would we have established an industry-leading standard for transparency and reporting on what we’re doing? And if social media were as responsible for polarizing society as some people claim, then why are we seeing polarization increase in the US while it stays flat or declines in many countries with just as heavy use of social media around the world?”
Haugen, however, pleaded with lawmakers that Facebook desperately needs congressional oversight and will not regulate itself or be transparent on its own. She said Facebook’s flawed artificial intelligence system has led to “ethnic cleansing” in Ethiopia. Also among Haugen’s accusations was that Facebook relaxed safeguards surrounding the 2020 election content after Nov. 3, allowing misinformation to spread and fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change. Facebook will not change,” she said.
Zuckerberg’s note disputed Haugen’s claims that the company prioritizes “profits over people” and defended the company’s introduction of “Meaningful Social Interactions” into the News Feed, a method Haugen said is tied to employee bonuses and has led some users, including children, she said, to content promoting eating disorders, misinformation and hate-targeted posts.
“This change showed fewer viral videos and more content from friends and family — which we did knowing it would mean people spent less time on Facebook, but that research suggested it was the right thing for people’s well-being,” Zuckerberg’s letter continued. “Is that something a company focused on profits over people would do?”
“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction,” he said.
Lawmakers on Tuesday, allegedly citing Facebook’s own research that Haugen leaked to them, said documents showed more than 13% of teenage girls said that Instagram made their thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls said Instagram makes eating disorders worse.
Zuckerberg also used several paragraphs to focus on kids, which Haugen said Facebook directly targets with addictive strategies, similar to the reckoning Big Tobacco faced about its tactics.
“The reality is that young people use technology. Think about how many school-age kids have phones. Rather than ignoring this, technology companies should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe. We’re deeply committed to doing industry-leading work in this area. A good example of this work is Messenger Kids, which is widely recognized as better and safer than alternatives,” he wrote.
Addressing Instagram Kids, a program the company recently paused after it came under public scrutiny, Zuckerberg said, “given all the questions about whether this would actually be better for kids, we’ve paused that project to take more time to engage with experts and make sure anything we do would be helpful.”
“But when it comes to young people’s health or well-being, every negative experience matters. It is incredibly sad to think of a young person in a moment of distress who, instead of being comforted, has their experience made worse. We have worked for years on industry-leading efforts to help people in these moments and I’m proud of the work we’ve done,” he wrote.
“Similar to balancing other social issues, I don’t believe private companies should make all of the decisions on their own,” he added.
He said that Facebook has advocated for updated internet regulations, as spokespeople responding to Haugen’s Tuesday’s testimony did as well.
“We’re committed to doing the best work we can, but at some level the right body to assess tradeoffs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress,” he wrote, adding later on, “That said, I’m worried about the incentives that are being set here.”
The CEO closed by saying he’s “asked leaders across the company to do deep dives on our work across many areas over the next few days so you can see everything that we’re doing to get there” — but did not signal any massive changes from the company, which has sought in recent days to discredit Haugen.
“When I reflect on our work, I think about the real impact we have on the world — the people who can now stay in touch with their loved ones, create opportunities to support themselves, and find community. This is why billions of people love our products,” he wrote. “I’m proud of everything we do to keep building the best social products in the world and grateful to all of you for the work you do here every day.”
Haugen, on Tuesday, said she believes in the potential of Facebook but there is an onus to “do better.” Lawmakers from both parties, operating in a normally divided Washington, were united in calling for Zuckerberg and other Facebook officials to testify before Congress as Haugen had, with several noting the billionaire’s recent social media posts of him put sailing with his wife.
“To be clear, if they make $40 billion a year, they have the resources to solve these problems,” Haugen said. “They’re choosing not to solve them.”