Facebook whistleblower says network profits as it hurts kids, fuels division

Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee during a hearing entitled 'Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower'. (AFP)
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Updated 05 October 2021
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Facebook whistleblower says network profits as it hurts kids, fuels division

  • Facebook’s leadership had rejected recommendations made to make its sites, which include Instagram, safer
  • Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, said Facebook had also done too little to prevent its platform from being used by people planning violence

WASHINGTON: A former Facebook data scientist told Congress on Tuesday that the social network giant’s products harm children and fuel polarization in the US while its executives refuse to change because they elevate profits over safety. And she laid responsibility with the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Frances Haugen testified to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. Speaking confidently at a charged hearing, she accused the company of being aware of apparent harm to some teens from Instagram and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.
“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
“Congressional action is needed,” she said. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”
Haugen said the company has acknowledged publicly that integrity controls were crucially needed for its systems that stoke the engagement of users, but then it disabled some of those controls.
In dialogue with receptive senators of both parties, Haugen, who focused on algorithm products in her work at Facebook, explained the importance to the company of algorithms that govern what shows up on users’ news feeds. She said a 2018 change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.
Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, she said Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back — a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate most of its revenue.
Senators agreed.
“It has profited off spreading misinformation and disinformation and sowing hate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, the panel’s chairman. “Facebook’s answers to Facebook’s destructive impact always seems to be more Facebook, we need more Facebook — which means more pain, and more money for Facebook.”
Haugen said she believed Facebook didn’t set out to build a destructive platform. But “in the end, the buck stops with Mark,” she said referring to Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50 percent of Facebook’s voting shares. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
Haugen said she believed that Zuckerberg was familiar with some of the internal research showing concerns for potential negative impacts of Instagram.
The government needs to step in with stricter oversight of the company, Haugen said.
Like fellow tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple, Facebook has enjoyed minimal regulation. A number of bipartisan legislative proposals for the tech industry address data privacy, protection of young people and anti-competitive conduct. But getting new laws through Congress is a heavy slog. The Federal Trade Commission has adopted a stricter stance recently toward Facebook and other companies.
The subcommittee is examining Facebook’s use of information from its own researchers on Instagram that could indicate potential harm for some of its young users, especially girls, while it publicly downplayed the negative impacts. For some of the teens devoted to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research leaked by Haugen showed.
One internal study cited 13.5 percent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 percent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.
Because of the drive for user engagement, Haugen testified, “Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content. ... It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have any self-regulation. We need to protect the kids.”
Haugen has come forward with a wide-ranging condemnation of Facebook, buttressed with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit. She also has filed complaints with federal authorities alleging that Facebook’s own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest, but the company hides what it knows.
“The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world,” Haugen said. “The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.”
The former employee challenging the social network giant with 2.8 billion users worldwide and nearly $1 trillion in market value is a 37-year-old data expert from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in business from Harvard. Prior to being recruited by Facebook in 2019, she worked for 15 years at tech companies including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.
After recent reports in The Wall Street Journal based on documents she leaked to the newspaper raised a public outcry, Haugen revealed her identity in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview aired Sunday night.
As the public relations debacle over the Instagram research grew last week, Facebook put on hold its work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is meant mainly for tweens aged 10 to 12.
Haugen said that Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation and incitement to violence after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last year, alleging that contributed to the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol.
After the November election, Facebook dissolved the civic integrity unit where Haugen had been working. That, she says, was the moment she realized “I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”
Haugen says she told Facebook executives when they recruited her that she wanted to work in an area of the company that fights misinformation, because she had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.
Facebook maintains that Haugen’s allegations are misleading and insists there is no evidence to support the premise that it is the primary cause of social polarization.
“Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform, we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100 percent of the time,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of policy and public affairs, said Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
That’s because of the “instantaneous and spontaneous form of communication” on Facebook, Clegg said, adding, “I think we do more than any reasonable person can expect to.”


Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

  • New committee for press freedoms established
  • 100-day plan endorsed, several proposals to start immediately

RIYADH: The Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board approved on Wednesday an executive strategy which will see several new committees established and a number of proposals fast tracked over the next 100 days.

The move came during the board’s second meeting, led by Adhwan Al-Ahmari, the association’s chairman, which took place on the sidelines of the Saudi Media Forum, held at the Riyadh Hilton Hotel.

Newly established dedicated committees will oversee the implementation of the association’s approved plan. These include an Executive Committee, responsible for setting interim targets and addressing urgent issues, and the Review and Performance Committee, tasked with monitoring performance, assessing committee effectiveness, and ensuring target fulfillment.

The Press Freedoms Committee will establish frameworks, implement plans, and collaborate with international media organizations to safeguard press freedoms.

In order to provide the association with a more robust foundation for its operations, the board has also decided to form a Committee for Developing Financial Resources, which will explore methods to generate income and ensure sustainability.

The Members and Relations Committee will manage the members’ affairs, while the Training Committee is tasked with crafting short-term and long-term training programs, as well as fostering partnerships with local and international universities and training centers.

The Events Committee will create executive plans for the association’s events and will develop a standardized criteria for internal and external activities, while the Content Committee is responsible for establishing a comprehensive editorial policy for all postings, as well as overseeing and improving the association’s website.

The board of directors endorsed a 100-day plan for the implementation of all proposals. The plan will be revised during the board’s next meeting.

The meeting of the board also discussed forming a club for journalists, which will be headquartered in Riyadh and operated by the association.

The board examined legal protection for media workers who are members of the association, in line with its regulations.

The board members emphasized the significance of expanding membership to include media students and trainees, providing them with a special membership to learn from professional journalists.

The meeting also discussed securing funding sources and establishing governance for the association’s fund for supporting journalists.


Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

Updated 22 February 2024
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Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

  • Hasan will be regular commentator with first column Wednesday urging US president to end Gaza ‘genocide’
  • MSNBC cancelled ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’ in January amid widespread criticisms

LONDON: Former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is moving to The Guardian US following his sudden exit from the network last month.

The British-American writer and broadcaster, known for his award-winning work, will be a regular columnist for the American online presence of the British newspaper.

Its US editor, Betsy Reed, said Hasan’s addition would enhance the publication’s political commentary, advocacy for human rights and free speech, and accountability for those in power.

Hasan’s debut column, published on Wednesday, urged American President Joe Biden to pressure the Israeli government to end what he described as the “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hasan said: “I have been poring over columns in The Guardian since I was a teenager. Now I get to write some of my own, in what is perhaps one of the busiest and biggest news years of my lifetime. It’s a huge honor and a privilege.”

The move came after Hasan’s MSNBC “The Mehdi Hasan Show” was abruptly cancelled by the network. While his programs did not always draw large audiences on MSNBC, his passionate monologues and incisive interviews earned him a significant online following, often leading to viral clips.

The timing of the show’s cancellation raised eyebrows, coinciding with Hasan’s criticism of Israel’s actions during its conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Media analysts and fellow journalists have raised concerns that ending Hasan’s show had left American audiences without a crucial voice in the corporate news landscape during times of ongoing conflict.

The Guardian US has been expanding its team, adding prominent columnists and an investigative unit, reflecting the growing interest in British media among American audiences.


‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

Updated 21 February 2024
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‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

  • Words ‘indicate US complicity’ in suffering, experts warn
  • Controversial video emerged as US vetoed UN ceasefire resolution for 3rd time

LONDON: A US congressman has sparked outrage after claiming “we should kill them all” in reference to Palestinians in Gaza.

US representative for Tennessee’s fifth congressional district Andy Ogles was approached by a group of pro-Palestine activists in Washington on Tuesday.

He was told by one activist: “I’ve seen the footage of shredded children’s bodies. That’s my taxpayer dollars that are going to bomb those kids.”

Ogles responded: “You know what? So, I think we should kill them all, if that makes you feel better. Hamas and the Palestinians have been attacking Israel for 20 years. It’s time to pay the piper.”

The shocking video of the Republican congressman has sparked widespread condemnation across social media, with experts warning that Ogles’s words are indicative of Washington’s complicity in suffering in Gaza.

“For those of you wondering how the Nazis, Daesh, etc. can kill people indiscriminately, now you are witnessing leaders and prominent people in the so-called enlightened democratic societies demonstrating that blind adherence to any ideology can make ordinary people into evil monsters,” lawyer, author and human rights activists Faisal Kutty said X.

“These people have all sold their souls to the highest bidder,” he added.

Ogles, known for his staunch, unconditional support for Israel, previously voted to censure congresswoman member Rashida Tlaib over allegations she had supported the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Ogles has also proposed legislation preventing Palestinians from entering the US.

The outrage over Ogles’s comments comes as the Biden administration faces growing criticism over its vetoing of a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council. It marked the third veto by the US since Oct. 7.

UNICEF has warned of a potential surge in preventable child deaths in Gaza due to malnutrition and disease. Save the Children’s Jason Lee described the situation as “astronomical” and warned that words cannot capture the scale of death and destruction in the enclave.

Israeli forces have reportedly killed more than 12,400 children in Gaza since Oct. 7, with more than 600,000 children now trapped in Rafah. Save the Children highlighted the alarming rate of amputations, with more than 10 children per day in Gaza, on average, losing one or both of their legs since October.


From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

Updated 21 February 2024
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From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

  • Gaza war has casted shadow over European cultural life after anger at Israel offensive flares in France, Italy, Britain
  • Artists have chosen to boycott the Berlin Film Festival in protest against Germany's alleged suppression of pro-Palestinian voices

BERLIN: Indian-American filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri was set to showcase his film about anti-colonial resistance against the Portuguese empire at this month’s Berlinale film festival but dropped out.
Announcing his boycott on Instagram, Sanzgiri accused the German authorities of silencing voices speaking out for Palestinians in the war in Gaza. “I will not be complicit. We all have blood on our hands,” he wrote.
Sanzgiri’s is one of at least three films that were withdrawn by their creators, while other events at the festival also saw artists pulling out.
The withdrawals showed the tricky waters Germany’s cultural institutions are navigating, caught between protecting artistic freedoms while recognizing what many Germans see as a historic responsibility for Israel after the Nazi Holocaust.
Such disputes have also flared elsewhere in Europe since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants. The European Broadcasting Union has resisted calls for Israel to be excluded from the Eurovision Song Contest.
Protests erupted in the Italian city of Naples in February after state broadcaster RAI distanced itself from an appeal made by rapper Ghali to “stop the genocide” during the closing night of the popular Sanremo Music Festival.
In Britain, a network of artists has been documenting events that were axed over artists’ pro-Palestinian views. The Arnolfini art gallery in Bristol also sparked a backlash after canceling two Palestinian film events, fearing they could “stray into political activity.”
In France, a group of artists in November organized a “silent march” where they held a white banner with no slogans.

STRIKE GERMANY
In Germany, anger over the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has killed 29,000 Palestinians, has clashed with sensibilities over supporting Israel. Critics say crackdowns on pro-Palestinian voices confuse criticism with legitimate protest.
As cultural events are often state supported, critics say the government has used its financial power to prevent any criticism of Israel, a charge the government strongly rejects.
“Freedom of art and freedom of expression are among the most important basic principles of democracy in Germany, which are of course also protected by the federal government,” a spokesperson for the culture ministry said.
“The institutions and projects funded at the federal level have curatorial freedom and decide for themselves which artists they work with,” the spokesperson added.
While announcing his Berlinale boycott, filmmaker Sanzgiri voiced support for Strike Germany, an initiative launched by anonymous artists in January calling on filmmakers, musicians, writers and artists to withdraw from cultural events in Germany.
“It is a call to refuse German cultural institutions’ use of McCarthyist policies that suppress freedom of expression, specifically expressions of solidarity with Palestine,” the organizers wrote.
Some 1,600 artists have signed up, according a list on the initiative’s website, including French Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux. Reuters could not verify the list’s authenticity.
Last month, Berlin’s CTM music festival announced several artists withdrawing in solidarity with Strike Germany.
Strike Germany calls for the adoption of a different definition of anti-Semitism that does not include criticism of the state of Israel.
The Berlinale has not shied away from the Gaza issue. It is hosting a so-called Tiny House initiative, a small space inviting disparate voices to debate the war. One of the films spotlighted Israeli settlers encroaching on land.
It is one of several cultural events in Germany clouded by anger over Gaza.
Hundreds of international writers condemned the Frankfurt Book Fair after a Palestinian writer’s award was postponed in October. In November, the entire selection committee for one of Europe’s most important art exhibitions, “documenta,” resigned after disputes over the Israel-Hamas conflict.


Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

Updated 21 February 2024
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Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

  • Individuals and businesses can build AI software based on Google’s new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free

SAN FRANCISCO: Google on Wednesday released new artificial intelligence (AI) models that outside developers potentially can fashion as their own, following a similar move by Meta Platforms and others.
The Alphabet subsidiary said individuals and businesses can build AI software based on its new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free. The company is making key technical data such as what are called model weights publicly available, it said.
The move may attract software engineers to build on Google’s technology and encourage usage of its newly profitable cloud division. The models are “optimized” for Google Cloud, where first-time cloud customers using them get $300 in credits, the company said.
Google stopped short of making Gemma fully “open source,” meaning the company still may have a hand in setting terms of use and ownership. Some experts have said open-source AI was ripe for abuse, while others have championed the approach for widening the set of people who can contribute to and benefit from the technology.
With the announcement, Google did not make its bigger, premier models known as Gemini open, unlike Gemma. It said the Gemma models are sized at two billion or seven billion parameters — or the number of different values that an algorithm takes into account to generate output.
Meta’s Llama 2 models range from seven to 70 billion parameters in size. Google has not disclosed the size of its largest Gemini models. For comparison, OpenAI’s GPT-3 model announced in 2020 had 175 billion parameters.
Chipmaker Nvidia on Wednesday said it has worked with Google to ensure Gemma models run smoothly on its chips. Nvidia also said it will soon make chatbot software, which it is developing to run AI models on Windows PCs, work with Gemma.