Facebook Whistleblowers Agree Facebook Is Too Focused on Profit
- Two Facebook whistleblowers, Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen, have publicly criticised the company in 2021.
- Zhang told Insider she sees a common link between their criticisms of the company — profit.
- Both whistleblowers say Facebook under-resources countries it doesn’t consider important.
Facebook has been rocked by a public relations nightmare after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents to The Wall Street Journal before appearing in front of Congress to publicly denounce the company.
Haugen isn’t the only Facebook whistleblower to emerge this year. Former data scientist Sophie Zhang went public with her criticism of the company in April 2021. This came after she posted an internal memo in September 2020 after she was fired for “poor performance,” saying she felt like she had blood on her hands.
Haugen worked inside Facebook’s civic integrity team, focusing on elections. Zhang was part of its authenticity team, where she identified networks of fake accounts being created by authoritarian regimes around the world posing as their own citizens.
Speaking to Insider, Zhang said although she and Haugen saw completely different sides of the company, Haugen’s testimony felt familiar.
“There is basically no overlap between any of our details. What overlaps is our overall message,” she said.
Haugen told Congress Facebook routinely places “profit before people” — a claim the company denies.
“I think it’s important to remember that ultimately Facebook is a company whose goal is to make money. We don’t expect Philip Morris Tobacco to have a division that reimburses people and agencies for lung cancer treatment,” Zhang told Insider.
“We have absolutely no commercial incentive, no moral incentive, no company-wide incentive to do anything other than to try to give the maximum number of people as much of a positive experience as possible on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson told Insider.
A linking detail between Haugen and Zhang’s criticisms of Facebook was the allegation that Facebook under-resources its work in countries it doesn’t think will get much attention.
Zhang told The Guardian in April she repeatedly tried to get the company to act against authoritarian governments, which were engineering fake engagement on the platform.
She was successful in some cases, but an interaction with the company’s VP of Integrity Guy Rosen showed Zhang was fighting an uphill battle trying to get the company to act in countries that were either not Western or not the focus of Western media attention. These countries included Russia and Iran, for example.
“I get that the US/Western Europe/etc is important, but for a company with effectively unlimited resources, I don’t understand why this cannot get on the roadmap for anyone,” Zhang told Rosen in private conversation, per The Guardian’s report.
“I wish resources were unlimited,” replied Rosen.
Haugen said during her testimony that Facebook’s moderation of hate speech in non-English speaking countries was severely underresourced, partly because the company does not employ enough native-speakers for the countries in which it operates.
“In the case of Ethiopia, there are 100 million people and six languages. Facebook only supports two of those languages for integrity systems,” Haugen told Congress, adding that Facebook’s lack of action in countries like it is: “literally fanning ethnic violence.”
Insider asked Zhang whether she thinks Facebook ignoring countries is an overarching problem at the company.
“I think there are many overarching problems at the company, this is one of them … What I would call the overarching problem fundamentally is the fact that Facebook is a company whose goal is to make money and therefore has no incentive to fix things and not lose sleep about it unless it affects the company’s ability to make money,” she said.
Facebook’s spokesperson said: “We have invested $13 billion and have 40,000 people working on the safety and security on our platform, including 15,000 people who review content in more than 50 languages working in more than 20 locations all across the world to support our community… Our track record shows that we crack down on abuse outside the US with the same intensity that we apply in the US.”
They added that Ethiopia is a “company priority” and that Facebook has “partnered extensively with international and local experts to better understand and mitigate the biggest risks on the platform.”
Haugen told Congress she wasn’t in favour of breaking up Facebook, and Zhang told Insider she was “neutral” on the issue — but emphasized that she thinks it would negatively impact integrity efforts on Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp.
“I am suggesting some regulation to require companies to work with each other and work on issues that transcend the problems between the companies because they have no incentive to,” said Zhang.
Zhang is due to give testimony to the UK parliament on Monday and said that she gave evidence to a European committee last year. Although she told CNN she is willing to testify before Congress, Zhang told Insider she has not been contacted by US lawmakers.
Haugen is due to appear before Facebook’s independent Oversight Board, and to give evidence to the UK parliament on October 25.
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