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Blumenthal Questions Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen

“Whether it's teens bullied into suicidal thoughts or the genocide of ethnic minorities in Myanmar or fanning the flames of division within our own country or Europe, they are ultimately responsible for the immorality of the pain that’s caused,” Blumenthal said of Facebook

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, questioned Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, during a hearing to examine the toxic effects of Facebook and Instagram on young people.

The hearing comes after reporting in the Wall Street Journal on Facebook’s knowledge of its platforms’ negative impact on teenagers and young users and after Blumenthal’s office was approached by Haugen with information about Facebook and Instagram.

During his questioning, Blumenthal asked Haugen about efforts made by Facebook to safeguard children and teens on platforms such as Instagram. The series of questions Blumenthal posed to Haugen were almost identical to questions Blumenthal and U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked Facebook in a letter from early August, to which they received vague and incomplete answers.

Blumenthal: “Has Facebook's research, its own research, ever found that its platforms can have a negative effect on children and teen's mental health or well-being”

Haugen: “Many of Facebook's internal research reports indicate that Facebook has a serious negative harm on a significant portion of teenagers and children.”

Blumenthal: “And has Facebook ever offered features that it knew had a negative effect on children's and teens mental health?”

Haugen: “Facebook knows its amplification algorithms, thinks like engagement based ranking on Instagram, can lead children from very innocuous topics like healthy recipes…to anorexia promoting content over a very short period of time.”

Blumenthal: “And has Facebook ever found, again, in its research, that kids show sign of addiction on Instagram?”

Haugen: “Facebook has studied a pattern they call problematic use, what we might more commonly call addiction. It has a very high bar for what it believes it is. It says that you self-identify that you don't have control over your usage and it's materially harming your health, your school work on your physical health. 5% to 6% of 14-year-olds have the self-awareness to admit both those questions. It is likely that far more than 5% to 6% of 14-year-olds are addicted to Instagram.”

Blumenthal discussed the research his office conducted by creating an Instagram account identified as a 13-year-old girl, which followed accounts on weight loss, dieting, and eating disorders.

Blumenthal: “She was deluged, literally, within a day of content pushed to her by algorithms that in effect promoted self-injury and eating disorders. Are you surprised by that fact?”

Haugen: “I am not surprised by that fact. Facebook has internal research where they have done even more gentle versions of that experiment where they have started from things like interest in healthy recipes, not even extreme dieting. Because of the amplification of interests, that imaginary user was pushed, or that real account was pushed toward extreme dieting and pro-anorexia content very rapidly.”

Blumenthal: “And that's the algorithm?” 

Haugen: “That's the algorithm.”

Blumenthal emphasized the need to empower parents to protect their kids who may suffer from insecurity, heightened anxiety, eating disorders, and bullying as a result of these platforms. 

Blumenthal: “Parents are anguished about this issue. Parents are hardly uncaring. They need the tools, they need to be empowered, and I think that the major encouragement for reforms is going to come from those parents and you have pointed out in general, but I would like for you to confirm for me, this research and the documents containing that research is not only findings and conclusions, it’s also recommendations for changes. What I hear you saying is again and again and again, these recommendations were rejected or disregarded, correct?”

Haugen: “There's a pattern of behavior I saw at Facebook of Facebook choosing to prioritize its profits over people. Any time Facebook faced even tiny hits to its growth like .1% of sessions, 1% of use, it chose its profits over safety.”  

Blumenthal also shared a text he received during the hearing from a Connecticut parent whose daughter began suffering from eating disorders after spending too much time on Instagram. 

“I just received by text literally about 15 minutes ago, a message from someone in Connecticut and I will read it to you. It's from a dad. ‘I am in tears right now watching your interaction with Frances Haugen. My 15-year-old loved her body at 14, was on Instagram constantly and maybe posting too much. And suddenly she started hating her body. Her body dysmorphia, now anorexia, and she was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment. I fear she will never be the same. I am brokenhearted.’ I think people tend to lose sight of the real-world world impact here. I think that's the reason that you’re here.”