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Facebook continues to lie to the public with abandon. That is one of the main takeaways from the Facebook whistleblower’s testimony last week. Even now, having been called out, Facebook is frantically working to obscure and underplay its own dishonesty.
This is a familiar pattern. In scandal after scandal over the years, Facebook’s executives have left little doubt about their contempt for democratic accountability. It’s time lawmakers take them at their word and make clear that answering to the people’s representatives under oath is not optional. Congress must promptly make use of its subpoena power to hear testimony from Mark Zuckerberg and other top officials — just as we’ve seen the House January 6 select committee do in recent weeks to compel crucial testimony from those with ties to former President Trump and his incitement of the Capitol insurrection.
Thousands of pages of internal communications, leaked to the Wall Street Journal and state and federal authorities by whistleblower Frances Haugen, are full of damning revelations: Facebook’s algorithm aggravates polarization, its internal controls are wholly inadequate to the task of combating misinformation or identifying human trafficking, and its standards are applied much more lightly to wealthy users. Additionally, she claimed, Facebook is aware its platform feeds extremist far-right content to users who don’t seek it out and has done little to stop the spread of misinformation.
Haugen’s testimony also tied some of Facebook’s actions to the Jan. 6 insurrection. In an interview with “60 Minutes” and in congressional testimony, Haugen described how Facebook decided to do-away with its “Civic Integrity” arm, a unit that Haugen worked in that was centered on combating election-related misinformation. Facebook dissolved that unit after the 2020 election, a development that was covered at the time. A few months later, a mob of Trump supporters violently stormed the Capitol in an effort to halt the certification of President Biden’s electoral college win. Those revelations have already caught the attention of the Jan. 6 committee and Haugen is reportedly expected to meet with those lawmakers soon, and might have already shared testimony with the committee.
One other crucial discovery in particular has touched a nerve with the public: Facebook knew from its own research that time spent on Instagram had a negative effect on the mental health of many teenage girls but did not take action to address the problem.
Instead, it hid the findings and blatantly lied about its knowledge of them. Mark Zuckerberg’s March 2021 testimony before Congress, in which he answered a question about social media, children, and mental health by saying that the “research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” was a grave mischaracterization at best, and a case of perjury at worst. This August, when faced with direct questions about Instagram’s impact on users’ mental health from Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn, Facebook was, as Senator Blumenthal noted in a recent hearing, “blatantly deceptive and disingenuous about it.” And in a September 30 hearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, was evasive, attempting at turns to underplay the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, sidestep commitments to take action, and distract by pointing to the behavior of other social media giants.
Unfortunately, this sort of behavior is entirely typical for the social media behemoth. Time and again Facebook has been caught lying about its practices and their consequences. All too often it has been found to be lying again about its efforts (or lack thereof) to fix the problems it once hid.
This contempt for accountability seemingly comes straight from the top. Mark Zuckerberg, himself, has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for congressional oversight by declining invitations to testify and misleading lawmakers when he does appear. That it has been allowed to continue has helped pave the way for the tech giant’s dizzying and dangerous growth.
Congress should not give Zuckerberg and Facebook the chance to stonewall or mislead the public again. It has the power to compel his testimony right away. It must use it.
Far too often, faced with the urgent imperative to get answers, Congress has wasted time with polite requests for testimony and documents. These requests suppose that answering to Congress is optional. And indeed, by failing to back them up with the threat of a subpoena, they have at times made it so. In 2018, for example, the Senate Intelligence Committee spoke to an empty chair when Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai refused to appear before them instead of compelling the testimony they sought.
When targets — whether they be Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, executive agencies or political appointees — do deign to comply, it is frequently only after extensive negotiations that needlessly delay or otherwise narrow the final result. During the Trump years, Congress’ reluctance to use its subpoena power compounded delays that ultimately pushed the pursuit of information into the new Congress. Given the opportunity, Zuckerberg could drag his feet for months, waiting until some of the anger has blown over. Meanwhile Facebook will be plowing ahead with new ventures that it does not have the capacity to safely or effectively implement.
Now is not the time to waste time. These new revelations make it abundantly clear that Facebook doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt or any accommodations. Congress must immediately put an end to the cycle of lies and evasions by issuing a subpoena for Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony and for any documents to support their investigation.
Jeff Hauser is the Executive Director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Eleanor Eagan is the Research Director for the Governance Team at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.