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Facebook’s Zuckerberg Decries Whistleblower Testimony

CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to the claims that his company overlooks child safety concerns and the distribution of misinformation, saying that the social media company is being mischaracterized.

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(TNS) — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday night pushed back against claims that the social media giant shrugs at concerns over safety and misinformation in the interest of profits and attracting young users.

Zuckerberg’s company faces renewed calls to be broken up after a whistleblower, former employee Frances Haugen, shared internal documents and research with The Wall Street Journal showing Facebook knew that changes to the News Feed algorithm in 2018 led to harmful content and misinformation going viral. The Journal reported that Zuckerberg himself was reluctant to implement suggested fixes over concerns they’d send users elsewhere. Lawmakers like Sen. Ed Markey in a hearing Tuesday called out the CEO to insist on changes that would protect users, particularly children, from privacy breaches, misinformation and violence.

But the tech leader says his company has been mischaracterized.

“I’m sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know,” Zuckerberg said to staff in a company-wide message shared on his official Facebook page. “We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health. It’s difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.”

Zuckerberg challenged Haugen’s claims on research being ignored, arguing Facebook had created “an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues.”

“If we didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would we employ so many more people dedicated to this than any other company in our space, even ones larger than us?” he added.

He disputed Haugen’s and lawmakers’ assertions that Facebook had hidden research, and dismissed claims that social media was a predominant driver of polarization in society, arguing many other nations use social media just as much without increased divides as seen in the U.S.

“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true,” he said.

Zuckerberg made the case that changes to the News Feed were driven by research suggesting people’s well-being would improve with more content from friends and family instead of viral videos — a move, he said, that was not “something a company focused on profits over people would do.”

Internal research and documents provided to the Journal, however, showed Facebook’s plan had the opposite effect, with the algorithm effectively rewarding the most reaction-generating content by having it show up in more feeds, sometimes driving divisive, misleading or violent content to go viral.

But Zuckerberg challenged the argument “that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit,” calling it “deeply illogical.”

“We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content,” he said. “And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.”

Haugen, under questioning during a Senate hearing Tuesday, made clear she did not think Facebook “intentionally” designed its algorithm to make people angry or to drive misinformation. But that wound up being the result, according to research that the company does not share with academia or lawmakers, and she suggested greater oversight and changes in how the company manages what users see.

“It’s not simply a matter of users being angry, or one side being radicalized against another,” she testified. “It’s about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs.”

Haugen also shared with the Journal research that demonstrated Instagram had been harmful to young people, particularly girls. ”They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram, and yet I can’t stop,’” Haugen testified, describing teen users glued to their Instagram accounts that were part of Facebook’s own research. “Problematic use,” which Haugen described as Facebook’s characterization for when users are effectively hooked on social media, peaks at 14 years old, research showed.

Other studies showed that parents who did not grow up with social media are ill-equipped to deal with children and teens living much of their lives online, facing an “addictive experience with technology,” feelings of loneliness and bullying that doesn’t stop once kids are home, Haugen said.

Markey on Tuesday issued a direct warning to Zuckerberg, telling the CEO that Congress would not let his company “harm our children, our families and our democracy any longer.”

The Massachusetts Democrat urged Congress to take another look at his and Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy’s bipartisan Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act, which would update online privacy rules to provide greater protection to anyone under the age of 16.

Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who led Tuesday’s hearing by the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security, have also introduced the KIDS Act, which aims to stop manipulative online marketing, the amplification of harmful content and threats to young people.

Zuckerberg said he was “particularly focused on the questions raised about our work with kids,” and said Facebook is “deeply committed to doing industry-leading work in this area.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids,” he said.

Zuckerberg argued that research on Instagram had been mischaracterized, noting studies “actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced.”

“In fact, in 11 of 12 areas on the slide referenced by the Journal — including serious areas like loneliness, anxiety, sadness and eating issues — more teenage girls who said they struggled with that issue also said Instagram made those difficult times better rather than worse,” he said.

He added that it’s “incredibly sad” to know that some young people, in moments of distress, have experiences “made worse,” and he said that Facebook was committed to conducting further research that would be more publicly available in the future.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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