The woman who cornered big Facebook, 37-year-old Frances Haugen, is on a mission. “I don’t hate Facebook,” the American wrote on the group’s intranet this spring, on her last working day. “I love Facebook. I want to make it.”
But according to whistleblower Haugen, this cannot be done without exposing what is wrong, or even dangerous, about the largest social media company in the world. And not without the US government imposing strict rules on Facebook.
“When we discovered that tobacco companies were hiding the damage they were doing, the government stepped in,” she said in a US Senate hearing on Tuesday. “When we understood that cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action. I beg you to do the same now,” she urged the senators.
On their own, the company’s leadership will not make Facebook and Instagram any safer, she continued confidently and with clarity – “because they have always prioritized their immense profits over people’s interests. As long as Facebook can continue to operate in the dark, it has no accountability to anyone. And it will continue to make choices that are against the public interest.”
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Haugen leaked internal Facebook documents to The Wall Street Journal showing that the company is well aware of its downsides. For example, that the mental health of teenage girls who are insecure about their bodies can be harmed by the use of Instagram, the popular photo app from the Facebook group. Or that Facebook’s algorithms promote discord in society.
According to Haugen, Facebook is partly responsible for the storming of the Capitol by supporters of then-President Trump on January 6 of this year. Around the US elections, Facebook took extra strict action against fake news and messages with a violent tone. But too soon, the company let the reins go, allowing Trump supporters to continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory and make calls for the storming.
Frances Haugen distinguishes himself from the typical whistleblower, often an elderly man who, after a long career and years of internal criticism, sounds the alarm about abuses in his company. Haugen has only worked at Facebook for just under two years, before that at Google, Pinterest and other social media, among others.
She says she has a strong personal motive for fighting the company. A few years ago, she became estranged from a close friend, she said in interviews, who became increasingly obsessed online with racist ideas and conspiracy theories about dark forces manipulating politics. “That hurt me so much, I don’t want anyone to have to go through that. This made me realize the enormous importance of reliable information on Facebook.”
When Facebook offered her a job in 2018, she said she would only be interested if she could work in the integrity department, which deals with, among other things, preventing misinformation and overseeing the security for users of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, which all belong to the company. But once in that department, she quickly got the impression that growth and profits were much more important to the top of the company than her and her colleagues’ recommendations.
Her mother, a pastor, said if you think lives are at stake, do what you can to save those lives, Haugen said. The Wall Street Journal. So when she quit her job after a labor dispute, she first copied thousands of pages of internal documents from the company network. To her surprise, she was not caught, even though Facebook keeps track of what employees do on the intranet, and even though she collected information that did not belong to her actual field of work.
She gave that information not only to The Wall Street Journal, but also to members of Congress and the US stock market watchdog SEC – where she filed a complaint against Facebook.
In the Senate, and therefore in front of the TV cameras, Haugen continued her attack on Facebook on Tuesday. Sharp, but more nuanced than most senators. Senator after senator, both Democrat and Republican, praised and supported her. The question is whether Congress can really restrict Facebook. But in Frances Haugen, Facebook has a formidable opponent. Someone who has found her mission and makes it clear that she will not let go any time soon.