By David Shepardson and Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Facebook took another pounding in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday and a senator called on federal regulators to investigate accusations by a whistleblower that the company pushed for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety.
In an opening statement to a Senate Commerce subcommittee, chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said that Facebook knew that its products were addictive, like cigarettes. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jawdropping moment of truth,” he said.
He called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the social media company.
“Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror,” Blumenthal said, adding that Zuckerberg instead was going sailing.
In an era when bipartisanship is rare on Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed on the need for big changes at Facebook.
The top Republican on the subcommittee, Marsha Blackburn, said that Facebook turned a blind eye to children below age 13 on its sites. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users.”
Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in an email ahead of the hearing that the company sees protecting its community as more important than maximizing profits and said it was not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrated that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage girls.
Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, said the company keeps its algorithms and operations a secret.
“The core of the issue is that no one can understand Facebook’s destructive choices better than Facebook, because only Facebook gets to look under the hood,” she said in written testimony prepared for the hearing.
“A critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency,” she said in testimony to be delivered to the subcommittee. “On this foundation, we can build sensible rules and standards to address consumer harms, illegal content, data protection, anticompetitive practices, algorithmic systems and more.”
Haugen revealed she was the one who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram’s harm to teenage girls.
The Journal’s stories showed the company contributed to increased polarization online when it made changes to its content algorithm; failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy; and was aware that Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.
Haugen said Facebook had also done too little to prevent its site from being used by people planning violence.
Facebook was used by people planning mass killings in Myanmar and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who were determined to toss out the 2020 election results.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Elizabeth Culliford, David Shepardson and Sheila Dang; Editing by Mark Porter and Grant McCool)