Facebook hid research to avoid regulation, whistleblower will tell Congress


Facebook has hidden vital information about the way it works from the public and governments around the world in an attempt to avoid being regulated more strictly, a whistleblower will tell Congress on Tuesday.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, will accuse the company of covering up its own research into how its products affect vulnerable users and society more widely, according to remarks released ahead of a hearing before the Senate commerce committee.

Haugen, who worked as a product manager in Facebook’s civic integrity unit and left the company earlier this year, is the source for a series of articles and interviews about the company that have created a new public relations crisis that comes as regulators and lawmakers weigh how to rein in the social media giant and its popular apps.

Haugen has also made eight complaints to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing Facebook of concealing a years-long decline in younger users in the US.

In her remarks to the Senate commerce committee, Haugen will say: “During my time at Facebook, I came to realise a devastating truth: almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government, and from governments around the world.”

She will add: “The documents I have 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.”

Haugen will urge lawmakers to regulate the social media group more tightly, likening it to tobacco companies that hid the dangers of smoking, opioid makers and carmakers before seat belts became mandatory, according to her prepared remarks.

“When we realised tobacco companies were hiding the harms it caused, the government took action,” she said in remarks published ahead of the hearing.

The social network also suffered a significant outage on Monday, with all of its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, going offline for several hours.

The latest allegations that Facebook “misrepresented” its “reach and frequency” metrics form one of eight complaints Haugen filed to the SEC, which were first reported by CBS News.

The complaint about Facebook’s reach said that “for years, Facebook has misrepresented core metrics to investors and advertisers including the amount of content produced on its platforms and growth in individual users”, especially in “high-value demographics” such as US teenagers.

“By delivering too many ads to users that the advertisers did not want to pay for, Facebook overcharged advertisers on a vast scale,” the complaint said.

A drop in Facebook’s younger users continued even during the coronavirus pandemic, when overall social media use surged. Haugen pointed to internal company projections that a drop in engagement from American teens could drive an overall decline in its US daily users by as much as 45 per cent between 2021 and 2023.

Lawyers for Haugen cite internal company documents dating back several years to support the whistleblower’s allegations of “material misrepresentations and omissions” to investors, including through SEC filings and testimony to US Congress.

Facebook is already fighting a class-action lawsuit in California over claims that its estimates of advertisers’ “potential reach” included duplicate and fake accounts. It has previously argued that estimates of potential reach are a “planning tool” and do not form the basis of advertisers’ billings.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the whistleblower’s SEC complaints. Facebook has described Haugen’s range of allegations against it as “misleading”.

“Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy communications, said in a statement on Sunday following the 60 Minutes broadcast.

The SEC did not comment on the complaints.