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How Facebook deals with hate speech is being misrepresented, whistleblower reveals

The former employee said that she found the situation in Facebook to be ‘substantially worse’ than in other organisations.

“I thought I knew how bad misinformation was then I learned what it (Facebook) was doing in countries that don’t speak English,” Facebook Files whistleblower Frances Haugen told the Washington Post in an interview on October 4. Haugen also did an interview with CBS News in an episode of its ’60 minutes’ show where she first revealed her identity as the whistleblower; this was followed by other interviews and a senate hearing with the subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

The ‘Facebook Files’ refers to a series of stories published by the Wall Street Journal in September on internal research that Haugen leaked after she left the company, revealing Facebook’s failure to take action in spite of being aware of its harmful effects on people, including teenagers.

With 2.8 billion users across the globe, Facebook’s products and policies have massive influence worldwide – but especially in India where it has a 330 million-strong userbase. Last year, Facebook India Head Ajit Mohan was summoned by a Delhi Legislative Assembly committee that was formed to investigate Facebook’s role in the 2019 Delhi riots. Before that, Wall Street Journal published an exposé accusing Ankhi Das, former Facebook India’s top public policy executive, of showing favouritism towards the ruling party of India.

What did Haugen reveal?

How much Facebook engaged with hate speech: Haugen revealed that internal research at Facebook misrepresents its progress in dealing with misinformation, violence, and hate speech on its platform. She said that an internal study conducted this year estimated that the platform takes action only against 3-5% of hate speech and six-tenths of 1% of V & I [violence and incitement] on Facebook.

When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content it erodes our civic trust, it erodes our faith in each other, it erodes our ability to want to care for each other, the version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world — Frances Haugen (emphasis added)

Facebook investing outside english speaking countries: In her testimony to the subcommittee, Haugen said that in its ‘integrity spending’ Facebook allocates 87% of it to english speaking countries who form nine percent of its users.

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“It seems that Facebook invests more in users who make more money, even though the danger may not be evenly distributed in terms of profitability,” she said.

In the same vein, Haugen later also said that Facebook is misleading multiple people across the world by telling them that their safety systems apply in their languages although they are actually getting the ‘original, dangerous’ version of Facebook.

Why Haugen decided to blow the whistle on Facebook: Having worked at various other social media organisations, like Google and Pinterest, Haugen said that the situation at Facebook was ‘substantially worse’. In her interview, she said that she repeatedly saw Facebook make decisions that prioritised its own growth rather than what was good for the public and noted that others before her had ‘ground themselves to the ground’ tackling this inside Facebook.

Facebook’s impact on politics: Haugen revealed that, during her time at Facebook, she was the product manager of Facebook’s Civic Integrity initiative which worked on risks to elections such as misinformation. However, she said, that soon after the 2020 elections in America, Facebook dissolved the initiative to go back to its model of choosing growth over safety. A few months later, on January 6, rioters stormed the US capitol in an attempt to overturn the US presidential election results.

Beyond the US, Haugen said that the alleged Facebook policy of encouraging platform growth over safety even impacted European politics. A 2019 internal report she found revealed a complaint sent by European political parties to Facebook. The report said that the parties,”…feel strongly that the change to the algorithm has forced them to skew negative in their communications on Facebook… leading them into more extreme policy positions.”

Facebook’s response

In its response to Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview, Facebook refuted all the claims made by Haugen and told CBS News that ‘fighting misinformation and providing authoritative information’ was a priority, and denied allegations that it played a role in the January 6 insurrection when the US Capitol building was stormed.

A few hours before the whistleblower’s interview aired, Vice President Nick Clegg reportedly emailed a 1500-word memo to Facebook employees, which said that the company intends to defend itself against the allegations levied by Haugen and called her allegations misleading. Interestingly, Clegg’s memo pre-emptively refuted claims that the whistleblower made in the interview such as the alleged role in the January 6 insurrection, that the Facebook News Feed elevates engaging content than safe content, etc.

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US senators earlier grilled Facebook in hearing

On September 30, Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis testified at a US Senate hearing, after the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook knew details about how Instagram was adversely affecting teens’ mental health.

During the two-and-a-half-hour session, Davis was grilled on various subjects such as the business potential that the platform sees from onboarding 13-year-old users, if it was aware of the negative impact before, and if it would make its internal research research public in the future. However, Davis did not provide direct answers to most questions.

Update, 6th October, 4:30 PM: Haugens comments from her senate hearing were added.

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I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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