The AP Interview: Facebook whistleblower fears the metaverse

BRUSSELS — Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said the world should fear the impact of the metaverse that the social media giant has rebranded to focus on, saying the futuristic virtual reality world would force people to give up more of their personal information, be addicting and give the embattled company another monopoly in the online world.

In an interview with The Associated Press today as she makes a series of appearances before European lawmakers drawing up rules for social media companies, Haugen said her former employer has rushed to prioritize the metaverse because “if you don’t like the conversation, you try to change the conversation.”

“Facebook should have a transparency plan for the metaverse before they start building all this stuff, because they’ve demonstrated with regard to Facebook that they can hide behind a wall, they keep making unforced errors, they keep making things that prioritize their own profits over our safety,” she said.

The metaverse is sort of the internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of — instead of just looking at on a screen — and refocused Facebook’s business model on it, including renaming the company Meta. People can meet, work and play, using virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphone apps or other devices.

Haugen is a former product manager at Facebook turned whistleblower whose revelations about the company’s practices have drawn global attention. Documents she has turned over to authorities and her testimony to lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed deep-seated problems at the company and energized legislative and regulatory efforts around the world to crack down on big tech companies.

She says the social media giant prioritizes engagement and user growth over online safety. Haugen, who also provided a vast trove of redacted internal documents to a group of news organizations, alleges that Facebook’s systems amplify online hate and extremism, fail to protect young people from harmful content and the company lacks any incentive to fix the problems.

Haugen’s documents have exposed an internal crisis at the company that provides free services to 3 billion people.

Zuckerberg has dismissed Haugen’s claims as a “coordinated effort” to paint a false picture of the company. A spokesman for Facebook said the company was working on a response to her comments about the metaverse.

Officials in Washington and European capitals are taking her claims seriously. European Union lawmakers questioned her intensely Monday, before applauding her at the end of the 2 1/2 hour hearing.

The EU is drafting new digital rules for the 27-nation bloc that call for reining in big “digital gatekeepers,” requiring them to be more transparent about their algorithms that determine what people see on their feeds and making them more accountable for content on their platforms.

Facebook has said it largely supports regulations, with legislative efforts in the EU and United Kingdom much further along than those in the U.S.

Haugen is calling for politicians to ensure extra scrutiny as Facebook focuses on the metaverse — a world that others including Microsoft and video gaming companies also are moving to build. She said such immersive environments are “extremely addictive, and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live in.” In “Snow Crash,” the 1992 sci-fi novel that coined the phrase, “it was a thing that people used to numb themselves when their lives were horrible,” she added.

Haugen voiced concern about how the metaverse will require adding sensors in homes and workplaces.

“In case of workplaces, we don’t get to choose to be in those spaces. Like, if your employer decides they’re now a metaverse company, you have to give out way more personal data to a company that’s demonstrated that it lies whenever it’s in its best interests,” she said.

Haugen has made stops in London and Berlin to speak to officials and lawmakers and spoke at a tech conference in Lisbon. She also will address French lawmakers in Paris on Wednesday.