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Facebook put profit before reining in hate speech: Whistleblower

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020. (Reuters photo)

Facebook Inc. has repeatedly prioritized profit over clamping down on hate speech and misinformation, according to a whistleblower, who worked as a product manager on the civic misinformation team at the company.

Facebook is aware of the fact that its platforms are used to spread hate, violence and misinformation, but it has tried to hide that evidence, Frances Haugen told the CBS television program "60 Minutes" on 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.”

She also revealed her identity as the whistleblower who provided the documents that underpinned a Wall Street Journal probe and a Senate hearing on Instagram's harm to teen girls.

A series of stories the Journal published based on Facebook internal presentations and emails showed the social media company contributed to increased polarization online when it changed its content algorithm, failed to take measures to reduce vaccine hesitancy and was aware of the fact that Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.

Haugen, who previously worked at Google and Pinterest, is slated to testify before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday in a hearing titled "Protecting Kids Online," which is about the company's research into Instagram's effect on young users.

"I've seen a bunch of social networks, and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I've seen before," Haugen said. "At some point in 2021, I realized I'm going to have to do this in a systemic way, that I'm going to have to get out enough [documents] that no one can question that this is real."

Haugen said her lawyers have filed at least eight complaints with the US Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the company is hiding research about its shortcomings from investors and the public.

Haugen also said she believes Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg "never set out to make a hateful platform, but he has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful and polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach."

She went on to say that Facebook was used to help organize the Capitol riot on January 6 after the company decided to dissolve its civic integrity team and turn off its safety systems following the US presidential election.

"They basically said, 'Oh good, we made it through the election, there weren't riots, we can get rid of civic integrity now,'" she said. "Fast forward a couple of months, and we had the Insurrection. When they got rid of civic integrity, it was the moment where I was like, 'I don't trust that they're willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.'"

Meanwhile, Facebook called many of the claims "misleading." "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," Facebook spokesperson Lena Pietsch said following the "60 Minutes" interview.

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