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Republicans Blocking Debt Ceiling; Facebook Whistle-Blower. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 05, 2021 - 15:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Top of the hour. I'm Alisyn Camerota.


The message from whistle-blower Frances Haugen is that Facebook should declare moral bankruptcy and seek help from Congress. She testified in front of a Senate committee today.

CAMEROTA: She's the former employee of accusing the social media giant of knowing how harmful their algorithm is for children and for our entire democracy.


FRANCES HAUGEN, FORMER FACEBOOK PRODUCT MANAGER: I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.

The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook an Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won't solve this crisis without your help.


CAMEROTA: CNN's Donie O'Sullivan joins us live now from Capitol Hill.

So, Donie, I mean, she just put to words what many people have been fearing for years about the algorithm of Facebook, that it does much more harm than good. So where are we and what can lawmakers actually do?

DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN BUSINESS POLITICS AND TECHNOLOGY REPORTER: Well, lawmakers can legislate to regulate. And there's certainly a lot of indication from senators on both sides of the aisle who were at that hearing today that they would be willing to do that, that this very much seems like a bipartisan issue.

And a lot of it is due to how compelling this whistle-blower's testimony was. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HAUGEN: Facebook knows that its amplification algorithms, things like engagement-based ranking on Instagram, can lead children from very innocuous topics, like healthy recipes -- I think all of us could eat a little more healthy -- all the way from just something innocent, like healthy recipes to anorexia-promoting content.

Kids who are bullied on Instagram, the bullying follows them home. It follows them into their bedrooms. The last thing they see before they go to bed at night is someone being cruel to them, or the first thing they see in the morning is someone being cruel to them.

Kids are learning that their own friends, like, people who they care about them, are cruel to them.

I would like to emphasize one of the documents that we send in on problematic use examined the rates of problematic use by age, and that peaked with 14-year-olds. It's just like cigarettes. Teenagers don't have good self-regulation. They say explicitly: I feel bad when I use Instagram, and yet I can't stop.


O'SULLIVAN: You can hear there why she is an absolute nightmare for Facebook.

And on top of all of that, she's got thousands of their internal documents, and she was with the company until as recently as May. The company, Facebook, is pushing back very, very hard, putting out a statement in the past hour. I will read you some of it.

They're really trying to down play this whistle-blower, the work she did. They say: "She worked for the company for two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision point meeting with C-level executives and testified more than six times not working on the subject matter in question." That's child safety. "We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about."

But so much of what she testified about is the truth, right? I mean, a lot of what she's saying about how these algorithms are designed and what Facebook and Instagram is doing and what is happening on their platforms, we have documented, through our reporting, through reporting elsewhere, and through other experts who follow this sort of thing.

So this is a very big issue for Facebook. And, finally, I will say this is not -- today is unlikely to be the last time that Frances Haugen is up here on Capitol Hill. Senator Blumenthal suggested that they might invite her back to speak more about child safety.

And, also, we heard from Adam Schiff yesterday saying that her talk about what Facebook did between the election and insurrection, she may appear before the January 6 committee as well.

BLACKWELL: All right, Donie O'Sullivan for us on Capitol Hill.

Thank you, Donie. CAMEROTA: And joining us now is a current Facebook executive.

Monika Bickert is the vice president for content policy at Facebook.

Ms. Bickert, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.

I know you just heard that report. And so I want to get your take on what Frances Haugen has said. Is it true that Facebook uses these algorithms that push inflammatory content because that drives more clicks and engagement?



And I want to say, I think there have been a lot of mischaracterizations today about what those stolen documents say and about the work that we are doing to keep Facebook safe.


CAMEROTA: But just so I'm clear, just -- I just want to be clear. You do not use -- you're saying -- what part is not true? You don't push out inflammatory, controversial content because you know that heightens engagement?

BICKERT: We do the opposite, in fact.

And if you look in our Transparency Center, you can actually see that we demote, meaning we reduce the visibility of engagement bait, click bait.

And why would we do that? One big reason is because, for the long-term health of our services, we want people to have a good experience. We want them to want to continue to come back to these sites, and connect with the people they care about for years to come.


CAMEROTA: Hold on. I have a question about that. Do you deny that teenage girls are not having a good experience on Instagram?

BICKERT: The majority of young people on Instagram are having a good experience, and that is borne out by the documents that were stolen, including the Instagram youth survey of about 40 Instagram users.

These were teens who were already struggling with mental health issues. And on all of the issues, the majority of boys and girls said that Instagram either makes things better or doesn't have a material impact on their experience.


CAMEROTA: So, hold on. Hold on. I just want to be clear.


CAMEROTA: Hold on. Just one thing. I have let you say your piece.

You're saying that you do not have internal research that shows that depression and suicidal thoughts go up for teenage girls, as do thoughts of eating disorders?

BICKERT: I'm saying that, for the majority of teens on Instagram and the survey that -- the stolen survey that was shared in the testimony shows that the majority of teens -- this was a very small survey. This is not peer-reviewed research.

But that survey has been mischaracterized significantly, because what it actually says -- and we have published it. People can go look at it for themselves. On the 12 issues for these teens who were already struggling with mental health issues, Instagram, the majority of them said Instagram makes things better or it doesn't have material impact.


CAMEROTA: How about the minority? How about the minority, the 13 percent that said it increased suicidal thoughts?

BICKERT: It's important for me to say that I spent my career as a criminal prosecutor and worked a lot on child safety.

So even one teenager having a bad experience on Instagram is too many, and I can tell you that the hundreds of people at Facebook who actually do work on child safety -- this former employee does not -- did not. But those who work on child safety and work with dozens of external academics and child safety experts, this is our top priority.

And are not only are we doing this research and asking the hard questions. We are also using that research to inform the way we build our products.


CAMEROTA: OK. So, have you found any research where girls say that it has increased suicidal tendencies, any research whatsoever? Have you seen that?

BICKERT: If I can just finish, some of the tools we have built, we hide like counts for teens using Instagram.

We connect them. If somebody's searching for eating disorder-related terms, we connect them with wellness resources. We give them tools to prevent bullying and harassment. That's the result of us asking these hard questions and doing this research, and we're going to continue...

CAMEROTA: OK, let me tell you what Frances Haugen said on "60 Minutes."

She said: "Facebook's own research says, as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. It actually makes them use the app more, so they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more. Facebook's own research says it is not just that Instagram is dangerous for teenagers. It harms teenagers. It's distinctly worse than other social media."

Do you deny that that research exists?

BICKERT: There are -- there's research we have put out.

In fact, we put out more than 400 research papers that we have participated in or released ourselves in the past year alone, and there is this survey that is not the same thing as peer-reviewed research, but has nevertheless -- we have published this as well.

That survey has been mischaracterized. So, am I saying everybody has a great experience? No. But what that survey says is that the majority of teens who were surveyed, it's a small number who are struggling with these issues. For the majority of them, it made things better or it didn't have material change.

Now, we need to do better for those who are having a bad experience, but that's exactly why we do this kind of research. We're asking -- why would we ask these tough questions if we didn't care? We're asking because we care.


On a bigger issue, what about democracy? Does Facebook take any responsibility for what happened on January 6, since it allowed the big election lie propagated by Donald Trump to proliferate on the site?


BICKERT: The responsibility for January 6 -- I can't be more clear about this than to say the responsibility for January 6 lies with those who broke the law, and those in politics and elsewhere who incited them.

And the work that we did both before the election and all the way through January 6, partnering with academics and researchers, working closely with law enforcement and electoral authorities to understand what the risks were, and to put safety measures in place that started before the election, well before the election, and continued through March, that was work that I'm very proud to have been a part of.

I have, frankly, never seen such an effort to prepare for an election.


CAMEROTA: But then why did you dissolve the Civic Integrity Department, which worked on misinformation, before January 6?

BICKERT: We didn't dissolve that team.

What we did was build a bigger team that that team became a part of. And, in part, that's because over the last few years with COVID, with the election, with other matters that we had teams working on individually, we were learning about things like how to use informational labels on content, how to build informational centers.

And we wanted to be able to leverage the things that these teams were learning and put them all on one team to work together. So, we have actually expanded the number of people who are working on these issues.

CAMEROTA: Why doesn't Facebook allow more transparency, to allow more regulators to see how the algorithms function?

BICKERT: We are the most transparent company in the industry.

We started the practice of releasing public reports about how we are enforcing our policies. We have built a Transparency Center we launched this year where you can see our content demotions. We launched an independent oversight board, and we respond to them.

Their opinions are transparent. Our responses are publicly available. And, most importantly, we have said for more than two-and-a-half years that we don't think we should be making decisions on our own. We welcome government regulation.

We would welcome government regulation. We've been talking to regulators. We welcome those conversations. We (AUDIO GAP) regulators at Facebook to see the work that we're doing. And we will continue.


I do want to get to what the solution is. But, first, let me just show you, play for you how Frances Haugen says you are much less transparent than other social media. Listen to this.


HAUGEN: At other large tech companies like Google, any independent researcher can download from the Internet the company's search results and write papers about what they find, and they do.

But Facebook hides behind walls that keeps researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of their system. Facebook will tell you privacy means they can't give you data. This is not true.


CAMEROTA: Do you keep some of the visibility from regulators?

BICKERT: I want to first answer the point about researchers.

We actually partner with hundreds of researchers. We put out thousands of peer-reviewed research articles that we -- our researchers have participated in, in the past several years.

So, this is something we care a lot about. With election 2020, we are working with 17 independent researchers who have access to data. And, of course, we have to make sure that's privacy-protected, but they have access to the relevant data, so that they can do work and independently put out their assessment of these issues on our platform.

So, this is something we care deeply about.

CAMEROTA: So, Ms. Bickert, if there's no problem, if you're doing everything great, why are you asking for more regulation?

BICKERT: I think the first step in regulation is getting transparency from the entire industry, and then we can actually see how different companies are doing and what is possible in terms of making a better experience for the public.

I think it's important, and our leadership in this company, including Mark Zuckerberg, have called for this regulation because we think these are important decisions that we shouldn't be deciding for ourselves. Government should have a role.

CAMEROTA: But what can Facebook do better?

BICKERT: There are a lot of things that we can do better, and that could be said for every company out there, of course.

But one thing we want to do better is make sure that our enforcement systems are keeping people informed about the decisions we're making, that we're telling them clearly what our policies are, why we're making the decisions we're making.

We also want to get better at finding content that violates those policies. And that's why we publish our community standard enforcement reports. We have done this since 2017, where you can actually see the progress we're making over time.


CAMEROTA: Yes. The whistle-blower says that the stuff that you publish is not really the looking-under-the-hood stuff.

I mean, she's saying that the innocuous stuff, you publish, but you're not publishing really how the algorithms operate and really what people need to know in terms of the controversial and most inflammatory content.


It's what's getting people so ginned up and how different algorithms prey on different people's confirmation bias. That's what's happening, is that you get the positive reinforcement, you get the reward center that lights up because you're fed content that reinforces and some would say hardens your belief system.

Is that not what's happening?

BICKERT: On the contrary.

And, look, let's talk about first with our algorithm what we do to counter polarization. And let's be clear. People can opt out of the algorithm. The algorithm is a way of ranking the content that people have chosen to follow from family and friends and groups and pages.

But if you want to see posts in chronological or reverse chronological order, you can. But since we're talking about the algorithm and potential for polarization, we publish in our Transparency Center the content that we demote, meaning reduce the distribution of.

And that includes engagement bait, click bait, because we want people to have a good experience on the service.

And I just want to say, I understand the temptation to blame polarization on this industry, but if you look, the research is very clear that polarization in this country has been going up for decades before social media even existed. And if you look at other Western democracies...


CAMEROTA: I suppose. The research that I have seen is that when social media got popular, polarization got worse. And I think there are loads of research that suggests that also.

But, Monika Bickert, we appreciate you coming on. I know you have to go. I could talk to you much longer about how you plan to have -- what you're asking Congress for and how you plan to regulate, but this is the start of a conversation, and we appreciate your time.

BICKERT: Thank you very much.

BLACKWELL: I think that element in which she talked about how the algorithm just populates topics or posts that you have already expressed some interest in, what we heard from Ms. Haugen today was that someone interested in just healthy eating choices, how that escalates to pro-anorexia messages, and the obvious danger for children there.

CAMEROTA: And I'm not -- and it's not what your friends and family are necessarily seeing. It's your news feed.


CAMEROTA: I mean, that's part of -- I don't know if she was making a distinction between those two things, but obviously they're saying that they couldn't be more transparent.

The whistle-blower is saying they must be much more, as is Congress. So, there's a divide there, and we will see if lawmakers decide to do anything about that.


All right. Moving on now: Former Vice President Mike Pence claims the January 6 Capitol riot was a tragic day in the history of the country, but he's now claiming the media only talks about it to distract from President Biden's agenda. We will have more on that.



CAMEROTA: President Biden is in Michigan today to push his sweeping infrastructure and social safety net agenda.

This trip comes as the deadline to raise the debt ceiling approaches. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that we are getting dangerously close to defaulting on the country's debt, but Senator Mitch McConnell is holding firm that Republicans will not help Democrats raise it.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): There's a clear path to achieve raising the debt ceiling, which must happen. America must not ever default -- and doing it with Democrats only. They have had plenty of time to execute the debt ceiling increase and have chosen not to do it.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Senate Republicans have manufactured a crisis that threatens to plunge our economy back into a recession.

We do not have the luxury of using a drawn-out, convoluted and risky process. We could prevent a catastrophic default with a simple majority vote tomorrow if Republicans would just get out of the damn way.


BLACKWELL: CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza is with us now.

Chris, leader McConnell says there's a clear path. There are several clear paths. He's on one of them, but he says that they're not going to go down that.


Let's just start, Victor, let's start from what we're talking about here, because I think people think that the debt limit is about the government spending more money. It's actually not. Think of it like your credit card. This is paying for bills we have already racked up in terms of spending.

What are those bills? Well, the Trump tax cut was a big part of it and the American Rescue Plan, Joe Biden stimulus plan for coronavirus was a part of it. But this money has already been spent. This is not about government spending more money. It's about paying for the money that's been spent.

You mentioned McConnell. Let's go here. So, on Monday, he sent a letter to Joe Biden. "We have a no list of demands. For two-and-a-half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit alone as well."

Now, this is the important part, "since your party wishes to govern alone."

Mitch McConnell is putting Democrats over the coals here because they are trying to pass this big social safety net bill with only Democratic votes, using a budget process called reconciliation, where you only need 50 votes. He doesn't want to help them on the debt ceiling because he wants to punish them for going that route.


OK. You heard Chuck Schumer say, tomorrow, we're going to have a big vote. OK, so there's going to be a cloture vote. What does cloture mean? Simple. You need 60 votes in the Senate to end debate. The Senate has unlimited debate. You need 60 votes to end it.

That means that 10 Republicans would have to vote with the 50 Democrats to end debate. If they did that, end debate on the debt ceiling, if they did that tomorrow, then 50 Democrats would then vote to raise or increase the debt limit. And we'd be done with all this brinksmanship.

That's not going to happen because 10 Republicans aren't going to vote with the 50 Democrats. I would doubt any one would, because Mitch McConnell has kept them in line, which then brings us to the options that Democrats have.

OK, so they have two options. One, change the filibuster. You keep hearing this, right? Liberals want to change the filibuster rules. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, before they were the swing votes on the spending packages, they were the swing votes on a filibuster. They don't want to do that.

I think it's very unlikely you will see the filibuster rules change, which brings us to this option, option two, which is, here's the word, the reconciliation process. There it is again. This same process that Democrats are going to use to try if they can come to a deal to get that social safety net bill through somewhere between $1.9 trillion and $3.5 trillion, we're not exactly sure where it lands, is how they would go about doing this, which would allow them to simply raise the debt ceiling with 50 votes.

The issue, though, is that will be 50 D votes and zero R votes. Democrats don't really want to do that, because even though, as I mentioned, the debt limit is about paying bills you have already accrued, the public think it thinks it's about the federal government spending more money, and Democrats don't want to own this.

What are the stakes here? Well, this isn't a made-up deadline. There's plenty of made-up deadlines in Congress. We got to do this for next Tuesday or else and then it's next Tuesday comes and you say we got to do by next Thursday. This is a real deadline.

Janet Yellen, Treasury secretary, former head of the Fed: "It would be disastrous for the American economy, for global financial markets and for millions of families and workers whose financial security would be jeopardized by delayed payments."

You don't even -- this is if we default. You don't even have to take Janet Yellen's word for it. In 2011, when Congress got close to not raising the debt ceiling, Standard & Poor's downgraded our credit rating as a country. This is real stuff here. This is not just congressional brinksmanship to no end. There's real danger here.

And my guess, Democrats go the reconciliation route because they're afraid of the circumstances and what would happen if they don't -- back to you guys?

CAMEROTA: Yes, I'm just wondering, Chris, on a scale of one to 10, how much should I be panicking right now? Because it seems like this is going to happen that they're going to do the reconciliation route.

CILLIZZA: OK, so if one is you're a laid-back person, and 10 is me, just in a normal day, I would say six because I do think, ultimately, Alisyn, I do think Democrats -- they are not going to want to do it. It is complex. There's a lot of -- it's a budgetary arcana thing that they're going to have to do.

But I don't think they're going to let us default on our debt, if they have the ability to not. And reconciliation gives them the opportunity. Now, you have heard Joe Manchin of West Virginia say we have other options available to us. He's talking about reconciliation there.

CAMEROTA: Chris "Arcana" Cillizza, thank you for explaining all of that. Great to see you.

BLACKWELL: Thirteen days.

CAMEROTA: OK, it has now been nine months since the January 6 Capitol riot.


RIOTERS: Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!


CAMEROTA: OK, that's bloodthirsty Trump supporters chanting "Hang Mike Pence" as the mob assaults police officers, vandalizes the Capitol and tries to hunt down then Vice President Mike Pence and other lawmakers in an attempt to overturn Trump's election loss.

BLACKWELL: Now, the former vice president was forced into hiding with his wife and daughter and was then, you see here, rushed out of the building.

But it seems that his position has evolved. He is now downplaying the riot and deflecting blame.


MIKE PENCE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration's failed agenda by focusing on one day in January.

They want to use that one day to try and demean the character and intentions of 74 million Americans who believed we could be strong again and prosperous again and supported our administration in 2016 and 2020.


BLACKWELL: Olivia Troye was a former national security adviser to the vice president. And Scott Jennings is a CNN political commentator, former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Olivia, let me start with you, because this image of the former vice president as this defender of democracy on January 6 continues to disintegrate. Your reaction to his now calling the insurrection a day in January that the media is using?