Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has delivered her strongest call yet for Mark Zuckerberg to step down as chief executive of his social media empire, saying the business will be better off with a leader who focuses on user safety.

Frances Haugen said Facebook’s parent company, rebranded Meta last week, is unlikely to change if its founder remains in charge. Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, the former Facebook employee, who has leaked tens of thousands of internal documents detailing the company’s struggles with user safety and misinformation, also criticised Zuckerberg’s “unconscionable” decision to invest in its metaverse concept instead of focusing on fixing its current problems.

Asked if Zuckerberg should step down, Haugen said: “I think Facebook will be stronger with someone who is willing to focus on safety, so yes.”

However, Haugen acknowledged that Zuckerberg’s control of Meta was an issue for any independent shareholders who might wish for a change at the top. Zuckerberg controls decision-making at the company through his majority ownership of the voting shares in Meta, which makes his position unassailable.

“Mark holds 54% of the voting shares in Facebook. He is the chairman and the CEO and I think that at a minimum the shareholders have the right to actually choose their CEO. And so I think it is unlikely the company will change if he remains the CEO,” said Haugen.

“And I hope that he can see that there is so much good he could do in the world, and maybe it’s a chance for someone else to maybe take the reins.”

Haugen also criticised the strategic shift behind the company’s surprise rebranding last week, with Zuckerberg committing the business to a major investment in the metaverse, a space where digital representations of people – avatars – interact at work and play, meeting in their office, going to concerts and even trying on clothes.

Haugen said the documents she had released to Congress, regulators and the press made clear that the company needed to spend more on basic safety systems and not an expansion into virtual reality.

The documents released by Haugen have revealed that Meta was aware its Instagram photo-sharing app has been accused of exacerbating mental health problems for teenage girls, that its own workers were dismayed by a failure to stem misinformation spreading in the run-up to the 6 January riot in Washington, and that Facebook was helping to fan ethnic violence in Ethiopia.

“I think there is a meta problem at Facebook which is that over and over again Facebook chooses expansion in new areas over sticking the landing on what they have already done and I find it unconscionable that, as you read through the documents, it states very clearly there needs to be more resources on very basic safety systems,” she said.

Haugen added that her actions were driven by a belief that Facebook needed to change in order to save lives. “I genuinely believe that there are a million, or maybe 10 million lives on the line in the next 20 years, and compared to that nothing really feels like a real consequence.”

Haugen’s appearance at the Web Summit follows her testimonies at the US Congress and in Westminster last month. In London she told MPs and peers that urgent external regulation was needed to rein in the tech company’s management. Haugen was speaking at a joint committee scrutinising the draft online safety bill, which imposes a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content. Meta’s apps, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, are used daily by 2.8 billion people.

Responding to Haugen’s comments, a Meta spokesperson said: “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We are on track to spend more than $5bn on safety and security in 2021 – more than any other tech company – and have 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on our apps.”

The spokeperson added that Meta was able to invest in expansion and safety at the same time. “Obviously, we can and must do both of these things at the same time – and we are.”

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