Facebook put "profit before public safety" with algorithm change

Ex-employee ​​Frances Haugen reveals the social network's reasoning behind the 2018 news feed change

A former Facebook employee has come forward as the whistleblower who leaked internal documents about the inner workings of the company to the Wall Street Journal.

Frances Haugen, who is set to testify before US lawmakers later this week, told 60 Minutes on Sunday that she had become concerned by decisions that appeared to prioritise "profit over public safety" while working at the social network.

"There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen said. "And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money."

Haugen joined Facebook in 2019 to lead product management on its Civic Misinformation team having spent more than a decade in the tech industry at companies including Pinterest and Google. She specialises in ranking algorithms and said her decision to join the social network was about helping it to combat misinformation.

During the 60 Minutes interview, Haugen claimed that a 2018 change to the content flow on Facebook's news feed contributed to more divisiveness and animosity on the platform. The company found this helped them sell more digital ads because it kept users on the platform for longer, according to Haugen. 

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This was addressed during the 2020 US elections where the company unprioritised political content on its news feed for several weeks, Haugen alleged, but Facebook went back to its old algorithms that value engagement over everything else. This, she claimed, contributed to the Capitol Hill riot on 6 January

"Facebook has realised that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they'll click on less ads, and [Facebook] will make less money," Haugen said.

Facebook's engagement-centric business model has been a bone of contention for regulators around the world for a number of years, and the methods used to keep people on the platform have also been cited in various reports and documentaries. 

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