Facebook Whistleblower, Frances Haugen, Advocate for Public Oversight of Social Media

If you’re going to spill the tea on the world’s largest social network, you’d better be damn sure you have the receipts and expertise to back it up.

Facebook – which has roughly 2.89 billion active users as of the second quarter of 2021 and makes almost $86 billion in revenue – is formidable. No wonder Frances Haugen thought long and hard about her decision to be a whistleblower, even starting out anonymously. But now Mark Zuckerberg is likely quaking in his ill-gotten sneakers.

Years of Experience

Haugen, 37, was born in Iowa City, IA, the daughter of two professors. As her website states, she grew up attending the Iowa caucuses with her parents, instilling a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation.

“Haugen showed a proclivity for speaking out at a young age,” the Washington Post reported. When she was eight, Haugen wrote a letter to her congressman expressing her concerns about a plan to turn a local street into a four-lane road. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to walk home from school because she had to cross the street.

In high school, Haugen won a statewide engineering competition. She went on to study electrical and computer engineering at Olin College of Engineering. She chose independent research topics of “privacy and productivity” and “dynamic social network analysis” for her senior year project. At the time, Facebook was only a year old and restricted to college students.

After college, Haugen got a MBA from Harvard. Presumably she didn’t cross paths with Zuckerberg.

Since 2006, Haugen has worked as a project manager for large tech companies, including Google, Pinterest, Yelp, and then Facebook. To be exact, she’s a specialist in algorithmic product management.

Working at Facebook

In 2019, Haugen joined Facebook as lead product manager for Civic Misinformation and later on Counter-Espionage. She told a Yale panel that she took the job because she viewed it as an opportunity to make sure others wouldn’t experience the pain she did of losing a friend to online conspiracies. She also wanted to do her part to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Haugen wasn’t naïve when it came to problems with social media. But she didn’t realize how bad it was. She told the Washington Post that she learned what misinformation was doing in countries that don’t speak English. She kept learning concerning information, like the scale at which people die in ethnic violence due to Facebook’s choices.

Haugen’s website says during her time at Facebook, she became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety and putting people’s lives at risk. Weeks after Facebook decided to disband the civic integrity team after the 2020 election, the insurrection on the Capital was carried out after being organized on Facebook. Haugen realized that Facebook wasn’t willing to make the necessary investments to improve its impact on the world.

A Big Decision

Shortly after this, Haugen confided in a friend – who just so happened to be an economist trained in game theory – about the disturbing behavior she’d witnessed at Facebook. She had decided to contact a journalist and provide confidential documents from the company. Needless to say, Haugen was scared, and worried about the effect her revelations would have on her career, co-workers, family, and friends.

Her friend, Leslie Fine, reassured Haugen that she had been thorough and analytical in making the decision to come forward. Satisfied that she couldn’t change Facebook from the inside, she took photos of documents shared in Facebook internal communications. She left the company with tens of thousands of pages of internal research and communications.

In September, 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles based on Haugen’s revelations. At the time, Haugen’s identity was a mystery.

Haugen went public as a whistleblower when she appeared on the October 3, 2021 episode of 60 Minutes. On the show, she called the disbanding of Facebook’s Civic Integrity program a betrayal of democracy. “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,” Haugen said in the interview. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

The next day, Facebook shares fell nearly five percent after the company suffered its worst service outage in about 13 years.

Testimony

Haugen was prepared. She joined Twitter and launched a website. Her team includes lawyers from the nonprofit organization Whistleblower Aid and a public affairs firm.

On October 5, 2021, Haugen testified at the Senate committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. Her opening statement is on her website, and it’s powerful.

“I used to work at Facebook,” Haugen began. “I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us. But I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy. The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and 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.”

During her time at Facebook, Haugen said, she realized a devastating truth: almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook, because the company intentionally hides vital information from the government and the public. The lack of oversight means there’s no accountability, which leads to frightening influence.

Haugen emphasized that the problems are solvable. “If there is one thing that I hope everyone takes away from these disclosures, it is that Facebook can change but it clearly is not going to do it on its own,” she said. “My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning.”

Damning Evidence

At least eight complaints have been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by Haugen’s attorneys. They cover how Facebook handles political misinformation, hate speech, teenage mental health, human trafficking, promotion of ethnic violence, preferential treatment, and investor communications.

One Facebook study that Haugen leaked found that 13.5 percent of U.K. teen girls in one survey say their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after starting on Instagram, a company owned by Facebook. Another leaked study found that 17 percent of teen girls say their eating disorders worsened after using Instagram. In her opening statement to the Senate, she said, “Yesterday, we saw Facebook get taken off the Internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”

She went on to mention the positive side of Facebook, a tool for connection.

Haugen’s documents have been shared with members of Congress and offices of attorneys general. She is scheduled to testify before U.K. Parliament on October 25, 2021. She is also in touch with the Federal Trade Commission as well as the European Parliament and the French government. The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the U.S. Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capital have confirmed plans to meet with her. And there has been bipartisan support.

Facebook claims that the documents were “stolen.” Thankfully, Federal whistleblower protections protect Haugen, but the leaks to the press might trigger legal action from Facebook, experts say.

On October 11, 2021, Haugen tweeted, “I have accepted the invitation to brief the Facebook Oversight Board about what I learned while working there. Facebook has lied to the board repeatedly, and I am looking forward to sharing the truth with them.”

Whistleblower Aid created a GoFundMe page for Haugen, which went live the day of the 60 Minutes interview. As the NY Times reported, “Noting that Facebook had limitless resources and an army of lawyers, the group set a goal of raising $10,000. Within 30 minutes, 18 donors had given $1,195. Shortly afterward, the fundraising goal was increased to $50,000.”

As of this writing, the goal is now $100,000 and $47,437 has been raised.

No Regrets

When Haugen decided to go public, she told Fine that she didn’t want to agonize over what she didn’t do for the rest of her life. Her website – which describes her as an advocate for public oversight of social media — calls her decision a last resort, courageous, and undertaken at great personal risk.

“Frances fundamentally believes that the problems we are facing today with social media are solvable,” Haugen’s website says. “We can have social media that brings out the best in humanity.” By speaking out, Haugen has made this a possibility.

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