Who is Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who is taking on Facebook?
On Sunday night, Haugen told 60 Minutes on Sunday night that she was the source of leaked documents to The Wall Street Journal and to lawmakers. It was the first time she spoke publicly.
Haugen is calling herself “an advocate for public oversight of social media.” She has a new website, Twitter profile and Instagram account.
Her message: She wants to fix Facebook, not harm it.
Haugen, 37, was employed at Facebook for nearly two years. She worked on the civic integrity team as a product manager to combat election interference and misinformation. Before working at Facebook, she was a product manager at Google, Pinterest and Yelp.
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What made Haugen blow the whistle on Facebook?
Haugen says the social media giant is not investing enough “to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”
She says she lost faith in Facebook’s commitment to protecting users after it disbanded the civic integrity team after the 2020 presidential race. Facebook said it distributed the work to different teams. But Haugen says Facebook stopped paying close attention, leading to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“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 on the CBS News program, “and Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
So she copied thousands of pages of internal documents that she says showed Facebook lied to the public about its efforts to root out hate speech, misinformation and violence.
Haugen pins the blame on a 2018 algorithm change which prioritized posts with high user engagement. It turns out lies and anger rank off the charts.
“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money,” Haugen said.
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What does Haugen want?
Not for people to hate Facebook.
“If people just hate Facebook more because of what I’ve done, then I’ve failed,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “I believe in truth and reconciliation – we need to admit reality. The first step of that is documentation.”
What Haugen does want: for lawmakers to take action.
“I’m hoping that this will have had a big enough impact on the world that they get the fortitude and the motivation to actually go put those regulations into place,” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
She’s also claiming investors were misled, too.
According to CBS, she has filed eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, comparing the company’s internal research to its public remarks.
Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy communications, said: “We stand by our public statements and are ready to answer any questions regulators may have about our work.”
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen talks with CBS’ Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes,” in an episode that aired Sunday, Oct. 3.
What else is Facebook saying?
It’s the battle of the soundbites as Facebook downplays the significance of the leaked documents and the reporting by the Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Pietsch said: “We’ve made important improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content, know about it, and do nothing is just not true.”
“If any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments and society would have solved them a long time ago,” she said.
Facebook tried to get ahead of the 60 Minutes interview with an interview on CNN.
Vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg told CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday that Facebook is not the cause of extreme political polarization in the U.S. or of the Capitol riots.
“I think if the assertion is that January 6th can be explained because of social media, I just think that’s ludicrous,” Clegg said. “The responsibility of the violence on January 6th and the insurrection on that day lies squarely with the people who inflicted the violence and those who encouraged them, including then President Trump and candidly, many other people elsewhere in the media who were encouraging the assertion that the election was stolen.”
Facebook cannot control all of the content on its apps, he said, and its job is to “mitigate the bad, reduce it and amplify the good.”
What’s next? And is Haugen in hot water?
Haugen is scheduled to testify Tuesday morning at a hearing convened by the Senate Commerce consumer protection panel. The hearing is supposed to focus on the risk of Facebook products to kids but will also cover the 2020 election.
Haugen will compare Facebook to tobacco companies, according to her written testimony obtained by Reuters.
“When we realized tobacco companies were hiding the harms it caused, the government took action. When we figured out cars were safer with seatbelts, the government took action,” Haugen’s testimony says. “I implore you to do the same here.”
During a congressional hearing last week, lawmakers pressed Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis not to retaliate against Haugen.
Davis would only say: “We’ve committed to not retaliating for this individual speaking to the Senate.”