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Whistleblower tells British panel Facebook algorithm geared for 'bad' users

"Facebook has been unwilling to accept even little slivers of profit being sacrificed for safety," former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen said Monday.

By Don Jacobson & UPI Staff
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Whistleblower tells British panel Facebook algorithm geared for 'bad' users
Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen arrives for a Senate commerce committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on October 5. Pool Photo by Drew Angerer/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 25 (UPI) -- In her second appearance before a national legislative body in less than a month, whistleblower Frances Haugen told British lawmakers Monday that Facebook is "unquestionably" stoking levels of hatred and addiction through its social platform.

Three weeks after detailing her experience in the U.S. Congress, the former Facebook data scientist told the British parliamentary Online Safety Bill committee in London that the company is "making hate worse" because tapping into anger among users online is the simplest way to grow its audience.

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Further, she said that Facebook algorithms actually work to send users to pages with more extreme content.

"Bad actors have an incentive to play the algorithm," she said in her testimony Monday. "The current system is biased toward bad actors, and people who push people to the extremes."

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Haugen said that efforts at Facebook to shield users from harmful or hateful content aren't working mainly due to institutional biases that prioritize revenue growth.

"Facebook has been unwilling to accept even little slivers of profit being sacrificed for safety," she said.

Haugen was invited to testify before the British panel to lend expertise to proposed legislation that aims to rein in the power of social media companies and crack down on harmful content in Britain.

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The landmark legislation also aims to punish social companies if they fail to safeguard users online.

Haugen went public last month with criticism that said Facebook profits from stoking political divisions and spreading disinformation, and has long known that the platform is potentially harmful to younger users.

Haugen first detailed her experience on 60 Minutes early this month and later testified before the U.S. Senate commerce committee.

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She told Parliament Monday that Facebook's Instagram platform is "more dangerous than other forms of social media," as it creates risks of addiction and self-harm for teen and child users.

Instagram, she said, "is about social comparison and about bodies", which feeds addictive behavior in unhappy children who "can't control their use of the app, but feel like they cannot stop using it."

It may not be possible to adapt Instagram's algorithms to make it sufficiently safe for children, she warned.

Last month, Facebook announced that it was pausing the launch of Instagram Kids, a child-specific version of the photo-sharing app, to evaluate concerns about the effect of social platforms on children.

Haugen's testimony Monday came a week after the stabbing death of British lawmaker David Amess, whose killing led to calls for more scrutiny for Britain's online safety bill and additional criticism of online behaviors.

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Labor Party leader Keir Starmer demanded that the owners of digital platforms be criminally sanctioned for failing to shut down extremism.

Before Monday's hearing, Haugen said that she never saw Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg give any indication that he cared to protect users from potential harm.

"Right now, Mark is unaccountable," she said, according to The Guardian. "He has all the control. He has no oversight, and he has not demonstrated that he is willing to govern the company at the level that is necessary for public safety."

Facebook's independent oversight board said last week that it invited Haugen to appear in the coming weeks, and has been invited to speak before the European Parliament's consumer protection committee on Nov. 8 for a session focused on updating European Internet regulations.

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