The appearance of Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen before the Senate Commerce Committee may prove to be the most important congressional hearing on the social media company to date. It didn’t reveal much beyond what Haugen already leaked to the Wall Street Journal for its recent blockbuster series on Facebook’s internal reports, which portray a company that is well aware of the various societal harms its systems propagate and is reluctant to do much about them. Instead, what was most revealing during Wednesday’s hearing was the questioning. Whereas in the past, members of Congress have been largely split along partisan lines about what exactly the problems are with Facebook—with one side fixating almost entirely on conspiratorial ideas about anti-conservative bias—this time they appeared to coalesce around the idea that the company’s algorithms actually seem to be causing damage to the company’s users.
This was in part thanks to Haugen’s disciplined and persistent messaging tying together the tens of thousands of internal documents she leaked to the press and regulators, articulated with the vocabulary of someone who’s worked at four well-known technology companies. Her main underlying argument, which she’s repeated religiously in her public appearances, is that Facebook “puts profits before people.” Put another way, a focus on growth always supersedes protecting the safety of users. There seemed to be a bipartisan consensus among the senators that this is a real issue that Congress should do something about.
In previous Big Tech hearings, it’s been all too common for lawmakers to hijack the proceedings to bang the drum for their own pet causes. In July 2020, for instance, the CEOs of four of the world’s largest tech companies—Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Apple’s Tim Cook—came before the House Judiciary Committee to testify about whether their companies engage in anti-competitive practices. Yet members of Congress like Greg Steube and Jim Sensenbrenner wasted the hearing with bizarre tangents about unfounded allegations of anti-conservative bias on social media, forcing their colleagues to waste more time trying to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand. Even going back to Zuckerberg’s first appearance before Congress in 2018 to testify about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, representatives were generally confused about how Facebook works and asked off-topic questions on conspiracy theories that the company secretly records users with phone microphones and the supposed liberal leanings tainting operations at the company. (In fact, Facebook has repeatedly catered to conservative politicians; it took inciting an attempted insurrection for President Donald Trump to be banned.) Both parties do come up with their share of ill-informed questions—the microphone question notably came from Democratic Sen. Gary Peters—though Democrats have more often focused on issues that tech experts and researchers have raised.
Wednesday’s hearing, though, saw senators on both sides of the aisle genuinely interested in what Haugen had to say and mostly sticking to the topics she was in a position to discuss. What seemed to bring the senators together was the fact that Haugen’s documents contained information about the company’s impact on teens and marketing to children. Indeed, the revelation that’s gotten the most publicity from Haugen’s leaks concerns research that Facebook conducted on its Instagram subsidiary showing that the platform is exacerbating mental health and body image issues in young users, especially teen girls. Relatedly, other documents indicated that Facebook has been forming teams to design products aimed at preteens, an initiative that was more extensive than what was publicly known.
“Protecting kids online,” which happened to be the title of the hearing, is a pretty uncontroversial goal in politics or otherwise. The top senators on the subcommittee holding the hearing, chair Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and ranking member Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, were on the same wavelength in their opening statements focusing on Facebook’s internal research, which set the tone for the rest of the proceedings. Senators lined up to talk about their own children and expressed dismay that social media is adversely affecting vulnerable users like teens. Even Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, both known for harping on supposed anti-conservative bias on social media, focused their questioning on how Facebook targets harmful posts at certain users. (Cruz couldn’t resist throwing in one question on bias toward the end of his time, almost as a wink to his conservative base, but he quickly moved on.)
The focus on children and teens allowed Haugen to segue to her larger point, which is that Facebook’s financial incentives are at odds with users’ well-being. According to her, the algorithms fueling the company’s platforms promote content based on the amount of engagement it gets, measured by likes and shares and comments. However, Facebook’s own research has indicated that the content that gets the most engagement tends to elicit extreme reactions like anger. At the same time, though, more engagement means people are spending more time on the site, which increases profits from advertising. Facebook’s ecosystem therefore encourages users to create, and the platforms to promote, more extreme content. Haugen claims that these algorithms not only hook young users on Instagram and serve them deleterious content, but also abet the spread of misinformation and politically divisive content, which tend to get more engagement as well. The Washington Post’s Will Oremus suggested in July that it actually might be more productive to approach problems like anti-vaccine content with an eye toward the algorithms and structures baked into the platforms, partly because it somewhat avoids thornier questions around content moderation and free speech. It’s not hard to imagine how a focus on removing and fact-checking posts could have reduced Haugen’s hearing to yet another fight over technology and the First Amendment. Algorithms that elevate and amplify content have less of a partisan edge.
What will ultimately determine whether the hearing was actually as promising as it seemed is how successful Congress is in coming up with a solution. Mother Jones’ Ali Breland argues that the fixes Haugen proposed, such as establishing a federal oversight body and transparency policies within Facebook, fall short of addressing the deeper systemic issues she exposed. A number of senators also used some of the time to hawk their own bills on the matter. For instance, South Dakota Sen. John Thune talked up the PACT Act legislation he’s co-sponsoring that would update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey promoted the KIDS Act that he’s co-sponsoring, which would ban manipulative marketing and harmful content aimed at young people. Overall, the senators mostly agreed on what the problem is, but it was unclear whether a majority would actually get behind one or more of the possible legislative solutions. The hearing was, at least, a start.