The woman behind Facebook’s most damning-ever leak of internal documents has a name: Frances Haugen. On Monday, ahead of Facebook’s worst site-wide outage for some time, details about Haugen emerged.
She was a lead product manager on the company’s “civic integrity team,” where she systematically copied tens of thousands of internal documents to share with the US Securities and Exchange Commission and members of Congress before leaving in May. It could turn out to be the most important act in Facebook’s corporate history.
Giving her first television interview Sunday, Haugen was succinct in explaining why Facebook’s algorithms were harmful. She gave clear prescriptions for what could be done: Don’t break up Facebook, but do hire more people to audit and guide the content that the company shows to more than 1.6 billion people every day.
Haugen no doubt has a tsunami of legal and corporate blowback headed her way. But Facebook is going to struggle to discredit someone who not only speaks well, but has a Harvard MBA and is so well-versed in how algorithms are made that she has patents under her name.
Haugen’s document dump
The leak revealed what many suspected but couldn’t prove: that Facebook created more lenient secret rules for elite users, that Instagram made body issues worse for one in three teen girls, and that Facebook knowingly amped up outrage on its main site through an algorithm change in 2018, potentially leading to the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol building.
Regulators have been at a loss for how to deal with Facebook up to now, but Haugen’s cool-headed suggestions coupled with internal details on how Facebook’s systems are set up could provide a clearer way forward.
She stresses that breaking up Facebook would be a mistake because that would starve the individual parts of the conglomerate of the resources needed to stem harmful content. Instead, the company needs far more people to audit and guide content across the platform.
While Facebook claims it’s putting real resources into just that policing, her account suggests the opposite. Her civic integrity unit, with 200 people, was woefully under-resourced and eventually dissolved by Facebook management, she says.
Haugen’s assertions that algorithms are underperforming is a well-rehearsed argument, but she has an enormous cache of documentation to back it up. And these aren’t just Facebook’s problems, she notes, but problems with “engagement-based ranking” in general.
Her biggest wish, she says, is for real transparency. Imagine if Facebook published daily data feeds on its most viral content, she says. “You’d have YouTubers analysing this data and explaining it to people.” That point should add fuel to upcoming regulations like European Union’s AI law, designed to force companies to unpick the code underpinning their AI algorithms for regulators.
While the 2018 revelations about Cambridge Analytica resulted in a fine, regulators ultimately left the social media giant alone and its shares climbed steadily. This is likely to be different, not least because of the change in the White House and Congress since then. US lawmakers recently introduced five antitrust bills targeting the outsize power of Big Tech. In addition to her trove of documents, Haugen offers lawmakers and regulators deep insider knowledge.
What set Haugen apart was how she acted on that tension, says Carissa Veliz, author of Privacy is Power, a book about the surveillance economy which talks about whistle-blowers as the moral canary in the coal mine for Big Tech. Veliz says that when whistle-blowers realise they can’t fix wrongdoing at a company, the cognitive dissonance they experience is so violent that it’s unsustainable.
“Most people try to explain it away,” Veliz says. “But a whistle-blower will decide that they just can’t go on like that. They will decide to make a huge sacrifice and come out with this information.”
The next step is surely terrifying. Whistleblowers often deal not only with recriminations from their employer, but threatening letters from lawyers. (What shouldn’t be lost in any future success for Haugen are the many whistle-blowers who’ve been silenced by such threats.)
During the pandemic, Haugen left the Bay Area to go live with her parents. Her mother, who is also an Episcopal priest, told Haugen she should go public with her concerns if she believed that lives were on the line.
With Haugen speaking publicly, it is the silence from Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg that rings loudest.
Zuckerberg appears to have his head in the sand. In recent weeks he has bizarrely published a series of lighthearted or jokey posts on his Facebook page about fencing, surfing and helping his children raise money for charity.
He may yet try to explain away the revelations. But, as Veliz says, his employees will increasingly struggle with the notion that they are working for a company that is toxic. More may be inclined to come forward as whistle-blowers. That won’t be pretty.
Parmy Olson is an opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of “We Are Anonymous.”