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Ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen testifies before Senate panel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How could action by Congress bring changes to Facebook? Former employee Frances Haugen told her story before a Senate committee yesterday. As we've heard all week, she left the company with documents showing Facebook's internal concerns about their products.

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FRANCES HAUGEN: The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous - for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook make changes.

INSKEEP: Now, Facebook has rejected that portrayal. But this week on NPR, we have heard a U.S. senator talk of regulating the company and a Facebook executive saying they would welcome regulation. NPR's Shannon Bond covers Facebook, which is - we should disclose - among NPR's financial supporters. We cover them like any other company. And so Shannon is here. Good morning.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the basic problem as Haugen sees it?

BOND: Well, she says Facebook consistently makes choices in the pursuit of growth, even when that risks harming its own users.

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HAUGEN: It is about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs, becoming an almost trillion-dollar company by buying its profits with our safety.

BOND: And, you know, Steve, we have heard from Facebook critics before, but I think what makes Haugen different is that, you know, she came to this committee armed with inside knowledge and this huge trove of internal research with some, you know, troubling findings, including surveys of some teen users of Instagram who say, you know, the app exacerbates problems like depression and eating disorders. And then she used these documents to make the case - it's time to regulate Facebook as a matter of public safety, like Big Tobacco, which is a comparison that lots of lawmakers jumped on.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention - she said, Facebook growing at all costs. Facebook, when they were on the program, were pointing out there have been occasions where they've restrained some of their growth in ways that they said would be less harmful, would be helpful to people. But still, they grow. Still, they use what they use. What causes these bad decisions by Facebook, as Haugen would describe them?

BOND: Well, she focused in on Facebook's engagement-based algorithms. That's her area of expertise. You know, the way that works is, when you're on Facebook or Instagram, if a post gets a lot of interactions, comments, likes, it's spread more widely. It's featured more prominently, the idea being that keeps people interested in using the apps. But Haugen cited Facebook's own research showing that focusing on engagement also tends to amp up the most sensational and extreme posts. So, for example, people might be looking for healthy recipes, but then they start seeing posts about anorexia. She says it's even fueling ethnic violence in places like Ethiopia. And she says Facebook needs to be pressured to fix it.

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HAUGEN: They have 100% control over their algorithms, and Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety.

INSKEEP: But now we get to the complicated part. What might action from Congress look like that could have a practical effect?

BOND: Well, senators asked Haugen what they should do. She says they should focus on these algorithms and holding the company responsible for their impacts. She also says they should demand more transparency. But the question is, you know, did any of these proposals actually move forward?

INSKEEP: Well, as we wait to find out, what is Facebook saying?

BOND: Well, hours after the hearing, we finally heard from CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He hasn't spoken about this before. In an email to staff, he didn't mention Haugen by name, but he said many of her claims don't make sense and that Facebook cares deeply about these issues, like safety and mental health, and he repeated his own calls for updated regulations. We also heard a spokesman during the hearing sort of downplaying Haugen's role, so that's another pushback we've heard from the company.

INSKEEP: Shannon, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

BOND: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shannon Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.