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US Senate panel says Facebook harming children, want CEO Zuckerberg to testify

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Whistleblower Frances Haugen has accused Facebook harms children, especially teenage girls, and deepens divisions in society.(Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@Breaking911)

U.S. lawmakers took Facebook to task on Tuesday, accusing CEO Mark Zuckerberg of pushing for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety and they demanded regulators investigate whistleblower accusations that the social media company harms children, especially teenage girls,  and deepens divisions in society.

During a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, whistleblower Frances Haugen said that Congress must intervene to solve the “crisis” created by her former employer’s products.

The former Facebook product manager for civic misinformation told lawmakers that Facebook consistently puts its own profits over users’ health and safety, which is largely a result of its algorithms’ design that steers users toward high-engagement posts that in some cases can be more harmful.

"As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable," said Haugen, a former employee of the US tech giant.

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," Haugen said.

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. She compared the social media sites to addictive substances like tobacco and opioids.

Both Republican and Democrat lawmakers condemned the company, illustrating the rising anger in Congress with Facebook amid numerous demands for legislative reforms.

Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said he was concerned about how Facebook and subsidiaries like Instagram affected the mental health of children. "I think we're going to look back 20 years from now and all of us are going to be like 'what the hell were we thinking?'"

Panel chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Facebook knew that its products were addictive. "Tech now faces that big tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth," he said, according to a Reuters report from Washington.

He called for Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the 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.

Blumenthal said after the hearing that he would want to ask Zuckerberg why he rejected recommendations to make the company's products safer for users.

Coming a day after Facebook suffered an hours-long outage, Haugen pointed to the breakdown in her testimony: "For more than five hours Facebook wasn't used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies."

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, accused Facebook of turning 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," she said.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Commerce Committee, said she would write a letter to Facebook to insist that it not delete documents related to Myanmar's persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya. An aide said she would ask for broader retention of documents.

Haugen said she would encourage "oversight and public scrutiny" into how the content algorithms work and the consequences of them. She suggested creating a dedicated body within the federal government to oversee social media companies.

Blumenthal said that he might want to hold an additional hearing to discuss national security issues related to Facebook.

Haugen also said Facebook had done too little to prevent its site from being used by people planning violence.

Senator Edward Markey, speaking to the absent Zuckerberg, said during the hearing: "Your time of invading our privacy, and preying on children is over. Congress will be taking action."

Throughout the hearing lawmakers referred to Zuckerberg as going sailing instead of facing his responsibilities. The CEO this weekend posted a video taken with the company's new smart glasses of his wife in a boat.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement saying claims that the company fuels division, harms children and puts profits over safety are "just not true."

"The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical," Zuckerberg wrote in a note to Facebook employees that he then posted on his account, hours after a whistleblower testified before US lawmakers.