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Facebook whistleblower says the social media giant is putting profit over user safety

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A Facebook whistleblower says the social network puts profits over public safety. The former Facebook employee has handed over thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to federal law enforcement. With more, NPR's Bobby Allyn joins us this morning. Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, who is this Facebook whistleblower?

ALLYN: Her name is Frances Haugen. She's something of a specialist in how algorithms affect what we see on social media. She formerly worked at Google and Pinterest. During her two years at Facebook, though, she was on a team focused on figuring out how election-related misinformation spreads. But she became disillusioned. She felt like the team was understaffed, that Facebook wasn't taking seriously how its platform was affecting societies around the world. Then Facebook disbanded her team altogether. Weeks later, the Capitol riots happened. And she says Facebook underplayed how the platform was used to organize the riots. She was having a crisis of conscience. Here's how Haugen described it on CBS' "60 Minutes." It aired Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

FRANCES HAUGEN: The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.

MARTIN: Which is, frankly, the objective of any company - right? - to prioritize profits. But is she saying Facebook broke the law in this?

ALLYN: Yeah. Yeah. She is. So I talked to her lawyer, John Tye, who said she filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. And the allegations involve the difference between what Facebook knew privately about its platform and what it was saying publicly. Specifically, the complaints are focused on the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook, alleged misrepresentations about Facebook's role in the Capitol siege, how Facebook hid its own research that showed Instagram is toxic for teen girls' mental health. Lawyer Tye says misleading investors is a crime under U.S. securities law.

JOHN TYE: You can't lie to your investors. You can't withhold important information that would help them decide whether to invest in the company. And we certainly allege that Facebook has done exactly that on a very wide scale, on a whole lot of different particular issues.

MARTIN: What's Facebook saying about these allegations?

ALLYN: Yeah, Rachel. You know, this document leak has created what's maybe the biggest crisis in the company's history. So the company is putting a lot of energy into pushing back. And it's saying, basically, that the representations are incorrect. Facebook cites 40,000 people who work on safety and security, and that the company says, you know, the whistleblower and the media are giving too much attention to what they call an incomplete look at its internal research. Should note here that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

MARTIN: So let's just explain what the whistleblower did here - right? - taking confidential documents from Facebook without permission, sharing them with law enforcement. Explain whether or not that is legal, Bobby.

ALLYN: Sure. So the SEC does have a special whistleblower program that allows someone like Haugen to expose a company and be provided with a legal shield. Her disclosures to Congress are also protected. That said, Rachel, her leaking these documents to the media does put a target on her back. There are no legal safeguards for going to the press with confidential documents. She could be sued by Facebook for a breach of contract. Now, I asked Facebook whether they're considering that. And they wouldn't say, you know, whether they are or not. But it's definitely a possibility. And it's something we'll be keeping an eye on.

MARTIN: NPR's Bobby Allyn reporting this morning. Thank you.

ALLYN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.