Molly Butler / Media Matters

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The Facebook whistleblower just confirmed everything we've been reporting on for months

During historic testimony in Congress yesterday, a Facebook whistleblower detailed extensive internal research behind the company’s struggles with content and ad moderation and sensational political content -- essentially confirming what Media Matters has previously reported about the platform this year.

On October 5, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, giving perspective on “how Instagram affects teenagers, how it handles children onto the platform, and other consumer protection matters related to Facebook.” 

Prior to the hearing, during an interview with 60 Minutes, Haugen confirmed The Wall Street Journal’s investigative reporting into Facebook and revealed that she filed eight whistleblower complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the company is hiding research from investors and the public.

Haugen’s testimony, interview, and whistleblower complaints offer insight into Facebook’s culture of prioritizing profits and public image over addressing serious problems, such as the prevalence of harmful misinformation and sensational content.

Media Matters, along with other researchers and journalists, has repeatedly reported on Facebook’s problems this year and the platform’s continued inability to adequately address these issues.

  • Facebook can’t properly moderate content on its platform -- and the company knows it

  • During the hearing, Haugen claimed: “Engagement-based ranking, Facebook says we can do it safely because we have AI, the artificial intelligence will find the bad content that we know is our engagement-based ranking promoting. They’ve written blog posts on how they know engagement-based ranking is dangerous, but the AI will save us. Facebook’s own research says they can not adequately identify dangerous content, and as a result those dangerous algorithms that they admit are picking up the extreme sentiments, the division, they can’t protect us from the harms that they know exist in their own system.” 

    This year, Media Matters has repeatedly highlighted the many instances when Facebook did not follow through on its own moderation policies against coronavirus and anti-vaccine misinformation and election conspiracy theories -- policies which Haugen noted are inadequate to begin with. 

    • September 28: Facebook is letting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation flourish in its comment sections.
    • August 27: Facebook groups around the world are promoting unprescribed livestock medications for COVID-19, while the platform seemingly does nothing to stop them.
    • August 12: An anti-vaccine misinformation video has been viewed at least 30 million times on social media.
    • August 11: QAnon shows and their hosts remain on Facebook and Instagram despite Facebook’s supposed crackdown on the conspiracy theory.
    • August 11: Here are the places airing Mike Lindell's election lies at his “cyber symposium.”
    • August 10: A new Plandemic-like misinformation video has earned tens of millions of Facebook engagements via streaming platforms.
    • August 9: Instagram Shopping is full of anti-vaccine merchandise.
    • July 29: A week ago Media Matters identified hundreds of anti-vaccine Facebook groups. Most of those groups are still active.
    • July 20: Despite Facebook's COVID-19 promises, anti-vaccine groups are thriving.
    • April 30: Facebook says it didn’t realize that “Stop the Steal” was “a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election,” despite loud warnings from researchers and journalists.
    • April 27: Despite federal complaint, a fake COVID-19 cure thrives on Facebook and Instagram.
    • April 26: PA state Sen. Doug Mastriano shares anti-vaxxer lies on Facebook, including false claims that vaccines kill and cause autism.
    • April 23: Anti-vaccine groups thrive on Facebook – don’t be fooled by the platform’s latest takedown.
    • April 20: On Facebook, Tucker Carlson’s clips promoting anti-vaccine and racist talking points are being wildly shared.
    • March 29: Right-wing ministry continues to use Facebook to dispense deadly COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation to millions of followers.
    • March 23: Vaccine misinformation still runs wild on Instagram.
    • March 19: A falsified audio clip spreading COVID-19 misinformation is still circulating on Facebook and other platforms.
    • March 18: Anti-vaccine ministry uses Facebook to promote dangerous COVID-19 and vaccine falsehoods to millions [of] followers.
    • March 8: Fake “vaccination exemption” cards are being promoted on Twitter, despite its policy against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
    • February 18: YouTube banned LifeSiteNews for COVID-19 and vaccine disinformation. The same lies are all over Facebook.
    • February 12: Banned from Instagram for vaccine misinformation, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s dangerous lies continue to flourish on Facebook.
    • February 9: Mike Lindell's social media misinformation machine.
    • February 8: YouTube and Facebook allowed another COVID-19 conspiracy theory video to go viral.
    • February 8: After Facebook banned a prominent anti-vaxxer’s page for spreading dangerous medical misinformation, he just moved his lies to a different one.
    • January 28: Facebook’s narrow ban allows much of the “Stop the Steal” content to remain on the platform. 
    • January 22: “Stop The Steal” organizer Ali Alexander’s far-right startup is still active on Instagram.
    • January 12: “Stop the Steal” organizers used Facebook and Instagram to promote events, including the rally that led to a mob breaching the Capitol.
    • January 11: Prominent anti-vaccine figures pushed egregious misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine live on Facebook and YouTube.
    • January 11: Facebook says it’s finally removing “Stop the Steal” content but it’s once again too little, too late.
  • Facebook does not prioritize transparency and has in fact misled the public

  • Despite Facebook’s claims of transparency to the public earlier this year, Haugen testified, “During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world. The documents I’ve provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems, and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.”

    Media Matters’ reporting in recent months has underscored the numerous times Facebook has evaded responsibility and transparency and instead misled the public about its knowledge of the detrimental effects of the platform.

    • September 21: NBC’s and ABC's nightly news shows ignored The Wall Street Journal's investigation of Facebook.
    • September 16: With its “cross check” program, Facebook knowingly allowed right-wing politicians and media personalities to abuse its platform — just to avoid bad press.
    • August 20: Instagram chief Adam Mosseri's interview on Breakfast Club was full of evasive half-truths.
    • July 23: Facebook's responses to the Oversight Board are a sham.
    • July 15: Facebook grants transparency only to help its own image.
    • May 19: Facebook's chaotic policy announcements are self-serving and confusing.
    • May 14: To mark the occasion on Zuckerberg’s 37th birthday, here are 37 indefensible problems with Facebook.
    • March 26: Three times Mark Zuckerberg misled Congress about extremism and misinformation on Facebook.
  • Facebook incentivizes sensational political content

  • In her testimony, Haugen highlighted Facebook’s hypocrisy in their claims to mitigate sensational political content: “Facebook has been emphasizing a false choice. They’ve said the safeguards that were in place before the election implicated free speech. The choices that were happening on the platform were really about how reactive and twitchy was the platform — like how viral was the platform — and Facebook changed those safety defaults in the run-up to the election because they knew they were dangerous. And because they wanted that growth back, they wanted the acceleration on the platform back after the election, they returned to their original defaults. And the fact that they had to 'break the glass' [air quotes] on January 6 and turn them back on, I think that’s deeply problematic.” 

    Media Matters has described again and again how Facebook has promoted sensational political content and refused to accept responsibility for the polarization that resulted. 

    • September 20: How one anti-mask activist leveraged TikTok and Facebook to spur local school protests across the country.
    • August 10: As COVID-19 cases surge and schools assess safety measures for the new year, Facebook is allowing anti-mask groups to thrive.
    • June 24: Inside the right-wing echo chamber's attempt to use Facebook to gin up outrage about critical race theory.
    • June 21: Facebook still has a double standard for politicians.
    • June 5: On MSNBC, Angelo Carusone explains Facebook's cowardice in failing to appropriately penalize Donald Trump.
    • June 4: On Sirius XM, Angelo Carusone explains Facebook’s short-term Trump ban is an admission “they are going to let him back on.”
    • June 4: Facebook’s two-year suspension of Trump proves the tech giant won't take seriously its responsibility for January 6.
    • June 4: Facebook should permanently ban Trump.
    • June 3: Trump’s failed blog shows how much he needs Facebook -- and the platform could give his account back.
    • June 2: Facebook keeps touting its labels, but data suggests labels actually amplified Trump’s misinformation.
    • May 20: Right-wing media and Republican lawmakers are the only ones talking about critical race theory on Facebook.
    • May 11: Trump used Facebook to amplify Fox News and its personalities. Of course the network wants him reinstated.
    • May 6: Angelo Carusone speaks with TYT's The Conversation about Facebook and Trump.
    • May 6: Angelo Carusone speaks to BBC Newsnight about Facebook's “oversight board” decision on Trump.
    • May 6: Angelo Carusone speaks with Univision on how Facebook enabled Trump's misinformation and extreme rhetoric.
    • May 5: Facebook’s oversight board puts the power back in the platform’s hands to decide Trump’s fate. History tells us that’s dangerous.
    • May 5: Angelo Carusone on Facebook's “Oversight Board” decision on Trump's ban.
    • May 4: As Facebook’s oversight board decides the fate of Trump's account, he’s showing exactly which lies he’ll spread if reinstated.
    • April 20: If Facebook’s oversight board reinstates Trump after inciting an insurrection, these companies will be supporting it – and they have the power to stop it.
    • April 29: Right-wing media ecosystem has dominated the national immigration narrative.
    • April 9: Facebook is allowing users to promote and organize maskless marches and mask-burning events.
    • March 30: Former President Donald Trump set to return to Facebook via his daughter-in-law’s page.
    • March 15: Right-leaning Facebook pages earn millions of interactions fearmongering about the House voting rights bill.
    • March 4: Right-wing Facebook pages dominated conversation around Equality Act and Dr. Rachel Levine.
    • February 18: Roughly a quarter of Trump’s posts on Facebook in 2020 contained COVID-19 misinformation, election lies, or extreme rhetoric about his critics.
    • January 22: Facebook has allowed private groups to promote “maskless shopping” during COVID-19 pandemic.
    • January 21: Angelo Carusone: Facebook is playing a game and without urgent action it will have Trump back on the platform.
    • January 13: In social media posts, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called her Democratic colleagues “the enemies to the American people” and vowed they “will be held accountable.”
    • January 13: Several GOP organizations posted a flyer on Facebook calling for “Operation Occupy the Capitol” with the hashtag “1776Rebel.”
    • January 12: Dozens of Republican Party groups used Facebook to help organize bus trips to DC for pro-Trump insurrection.
    • January 10: Facebook put a pause on Trump’s account. The balance of content is already shifting.
    • January 6: Facebook is enabling Trump's attempts to subvert democracy.
    • January 5: Users in private Facebook groups are encouraging each other to break D.C. gun laws ahead of election protests.
    • January 2: Conservatives spent 2020 accusing Facebook of being biased against them, but engagement data tells a different story.
  • Problems are much worse in non-English languages

  • Haugen pointed out that Facebook’s failure to address these problems is worse when it comes to content in languages other than English, saying: “In countries where they don’t have integrity systems in the local language, and in the case of Ethiopia, there are a hundred million people in Ethiopia and six languages. Facebook only supports two of those languages for integrity systems. This strategy of focusing on language-specific, content-specific systems — AI — to save us is doomed to fail.” 

    Media Matters has previously reported how this policy led to disastrous results in Myanmar, which saw a genocide against that country’s Rohingya minority.

    • February 25: Facebook has continued to fail Myanmar. Now its people have to pay the price.
  • Ads are not adequately moderated

  • Haugen pointed out that ads are not being adequately moderated, saying, “I think Facebook has focused on scale over safety, and it is likely that they are using artificial intelligence to try to identify harmful ads without allowing the public oversight to see what is the actual effectiveness of those safety systems.” She also noted that if Facebook is using artificial intelligence to catch vape ads targeting teenagers, then “unquestionably ads are making its way through.”

    Media Matters has documented six different instances in 2021 alone when Facebook allowed objectionable content in ads — while actively profiting off of it. 

    • October 4: Facebook is letting Trump’s PAC run ads implying he is the “true president.”
    • August 12: Facebook has earned up to $220,000 in revenue by allowing Trump’s PAC to run ads, even though he is suspended from Facebook.
    • August 6: Facebook is profiting off ads promoting fringe platforms known for spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories.
    • July 6: Six months after the Capitol riot, Facebook is still letting Trump and his allies promote rallies filled with election misinformation.
    • June 25: Facebook is enabling Trump’s PAC to fundraise on the platform despite his two-year suspension for inciting violence.
    • March 17: Anti-LGBTQ groups are using Facebook ads to spread misinformation about the Equality Act.