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US Lawmakers Pillory Social Media Giant Facebook

Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaks during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, on Capitol Hill, Oct. 5, 2021.

Key U.S. lawmakers pilloried social media giant Facebook on Tuesday after Frances Haugen, an inside whistleblower who once worked at the company, alleged that Facebook's products are harming young people, undermining democracy and helping to divide the country politically.

Haugen, who worked as a Facebook project manager for less than two years, held Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg responsible for prioritizing concerns about company profits over controlling online content on its various platforms, including Instagram.

Haugen testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection a day after Facebook had encountered hourslong technical issues that left millions of users wondering why they could not access the site and its other platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

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"I don't know why it went down," Haugen said, "but I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn't used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies" with the posting of glamorous pictures of models, pop singers and Hollywood starlets.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in a rare show of political unanimity in Washington, quickly castigated Facebook and panned Zuckerberg for a recent sailing trip while controversy engulfed his company. They promised to enact tighter controls on social media.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut contended, "The damage to self-interest and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation. Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror."

He said, "Big Tech now faces the Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth."

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., right speak to former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, center, during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Oct. 5, 2021.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., right speak to former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, center, during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Oct. 5, 2021.

Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee declared that Facebook "is not interested in making significant changes to improve kids' safety on their platforms, at least not when that would result in losing eyeballs on posts or decreasing their ad revenues."

"It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users," she said.

Other lawmakers accused Facebook of helping to foment the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, when hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed into the building to try to prevent lawmakers from declaring that Democrat Joe Biden had won last November's election.

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, "When they allowed 99% of violent content to remain unchecked on their platform, including the lead-up to the January 6 insurrection, what did they do? Now we know Mark Zuckerberg was going sailing."

While the hearing was ongoing, Facebook pushed back against Haugen and the onslaught of criticism. It said in a statement that Haugen had no other Facebook employees who reported to her, had never attended a decision-making meeting with top Facebook officials, and had acknowledged in her testimony at least six times she was being asked questions about aspects of the company she had not worked on.

"We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about," Facebook said.

"Despite all this," Facebook said, "we agree on one thing; it's time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It's been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act."

Haugen acknowledged that she was the one who provided the documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation of Facebook.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.