Professionalism/Frances Haugen and Facebook

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Frances Haugen is a Facebook whistleblower where she disclosed tens of thousands of Facebook's internal documents that exposed how Facebook was aware of the harm its platform caused.

Background[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Frances Haugen was born in Iowa City, Iowa.[1] She grew up attending the Iowa caucuses with her parents, which instilled in her a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation.[1] Every since a young child, Haugen was engaged in civil affairs in her city. At age 8, she expressed concerns about plans to widen a neighborhood road that she wrote to U.S. Rep Jim Leach that read: "Please don't let them turn Melrose Avenue into a four-lane road. I couldn't walk home from school because I have to cross Melrose. Sincerely yours Frances Haugen."[2] As her academic interests expanded, Frances Haugen was often featured in her local newspaper in her hometown. News clippings from Iowa City Press-Citizen archives show she loved geography and participated in debate and engineering competitions.[2] During an interview in sixth grade, Haugen expressed her aspirations of becoming a biologist with the goal of feeding the world, or a lawyer with a desire to become a politician.[2] This early display of civic-mindedness foreshadowed Haugen's later commitment to public safety and corporate accountability.

Early Education and Career[edit | edit source]

After completing her high school education, she went on to study Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College. Later, she pursued a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Harvard University.[1] After receiving her MBA, Haugen initially was hired by Google as a Software Engineer but later transitioned to a Product Manager.[3] At Google, Haugen initially worked in the reporting functions of Google Ads. This experience helped her to learn better ways of communicating with numbers. She transitioned on to Google Book Search, helping launch book reader for mobile devices.[3] Haugen also was involved with the settlement of class action litigation after Google was sued by publishers for its project to publish book content on the web.[3] In 2015, she began work as a data product manager at Yelp and after a year, moved to Pinterest.[4] In 2019, Haugen joined Facebook, because someone close to her was radicalized online and she "felt compelled to take an active role in creating a better, less toxic Facebook. She expressed interest in a role related to misinformation, and so she became a product manager in the Facebook civic integrity team.[5]

Whistleblowing Activity[edit | edit source]

Background and 60 Minutes Interview[edit | edit source]

At Facebook, Frances Haugen worked on the civic integrity team. When she was recruited to Facebook, she wanted to join a team that would stop the spread of misinformation.[6] After the 2020 election, Facebook disbanded the team; this marked the beginning of the end for Haugen at Facebook. From November 2020 to April 2021, Haugen amassed tens of thousands of internal documents that she intended to use to whistleblow.[7] This is a prime example of sacrificing one’s career for one's profession. Haugen exited Facebook and spent the next several months organizing her documents and ensuring the information could get out to the public. She knew that once she put her face to the leak, she would close herself off from opportunities in her field. In September of 2021, she leaked the documents anonymously to the Wall Street Journal.[8] In October, she went on 60 minutes to share her side of the story; and testified in front of Congress two days later. The interview went into her background, and highlighted the higher level issues in the documents. Facebook research shows it knows it is harming individuals and groups, and has taken minimal action.[9] Haugen stated “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.”[6]

Congressional Hearing[edit | edit source]

Haugen testified in front of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. In the congressional hearing she remarked, “As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change.”[10] A key takeaway was that Facebook knows solutions to spreading misinformation, and has tools that it can use. It can make it harder to share articles, but this would decrease engagement and profit.[11] During the hearing, the ranking Republican member Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn said she had “received a text from Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone pointing out that Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge on the topic from her work at Facebook.”[11] Facebook pushed this narrative to discredit Haugen, but it does not take away from the raw documentation of the company's actions.

Facebook Response and Ethical Summary[edit | edit source]

After the hearing, Mark Zuckerberg wrote Facebook is “committed to doing more research ourselves and making more research publicly available.”[12] Facebook has not made these changes in the years since. It changed its name to Meta just weeks after Haugen’s testimony.[13] Reviewing Haugen’s actions, it is clear she took great risks at her own expense to publicize Facebook’s actions. There was bi-partisan uproar at what was revealed, that time and time again Facebook chose profit over the health and safety of its users.[11] Haugen did what engineers at Boeing were not strong enough to do leading up to the 737 Max disasters. She put her profession above her career, helping the billions of Facebook users to at least be aware of its transgressions. Congress may move slowly to regulate, but the public is now more broadly aware, and Facebook is under a stronger microscope than ever.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

Since the hearing, Haugen has shifted her career to focus on speaking engagements with the purpose of standing up for what she believes in. Even after her departure from Facebook, she continues to advocate against the company and claims that they have been “misleading the public and investors on how it handles issues such as climate change, misinformation, and hate speech, and the impact of its services on the mental health of children and young adults.”[1] Facebook did not make explicit policy changes in the direct aftermath of Haugen’s testimony. In a blog post from September 2021, Facebook claimed that they employed 40,000 people working in safety and security and spent more than $13 billion since 2016 to that end.[14] Clearly, in Haugen’s opinion, this is still not enough to create a safe and responsible Facebook because these changes were being implemented before and during her coming forward. In a conference with Vox almost a year after her testimony she maintains that Facebook hasn’t learned their lesson yet, saying, “They haven’t yet admitted that the way they were doing business is what caused their problems.”[15] In the same conference, she lamented the amount of control that Mark Zuckerberg has over the company, saying she wishes that the Securities and Exchange Commission would force him to sell some of his shares.

Media Controversy[edit | edit source]

In the aftermath of Haugen’s testimony, the media was overtaken with controversial opinions surrounding what Facebook was doing and what her revelations meant for our country. Many on the left championed her as a defender of those hurt by social media.[16][17] Others on the right condemned her as a censor and a violator of American free speech principles.[18] Although this made for entertaining media coverage and most likely drove up ratings, it was almost certainly more reductive than helpful. When the media seeks to get the public emotional about one specific person or event along political lines, it is usually the case that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and this case is no different. One universal concern was Instagram’s impact on the mental health of young people. An internal study brought to light in the leak linked Instagram to suicidality in teens.[19] These statistics are extreme and the company causing the issue is only paying lip service to a solution. Facebook is a profit-seeking entity and a major company in the United States, so it can be difficult to find a way to shield oneself from the negative effects they cause. At a certain point, the cost-benefit analysis stops going in their favor for families who have been impacted negatively by their products. There is inevitably a natural tipping point where parents will get their children off of these sites. This isn’t to say that Facebook and social media are inherently bad, but they need to consider the safety of users on their platform, especially children.

  1. a b c d "Frances Haugen". Frances Haugen. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  2. a b c Cress, Cleo Krejci and Joseph. "Long before becoming the 'Facebook whistleblower,' Frances Haugen was a curious student in Iowa City". Iowa City Press-Citizen. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  3. a b c "Iowa City native Frances Haugen credits grade school enrichment program for success". Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  4. "3 things to know about Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen". Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  5. Statement of Frances Haugen. (2021).
  6. a b Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen: The 60 Minutes Interview, retrieved 2023-04-27
  7. Mac, Ryan; Kang, Cecilia (2021-10-03). "Whistle-Blower Says Facebook ‘Chooses Profits Over Safety’" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  8. Tracy, John D. McKinnon and Ryan. "Facebook Whistleblower's Testimony Builds Momentum for Tougher Tech Laws". WSJ. Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  9. "The Facebook Files" (in en-US). Wall Street Journal. 2021-10-01. ISSN 0099-9660. 
  10. Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before Senate Commerce Committee, retrieved 2023-04-27
  11. a b c "Facebook whistleblower testifies: Five highlights". AP NEWS. 2021-10-05. Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  12. Glazer, Emily. "Mark Zuckerberg Breaks Silence on Facebook Whistleblower Testimony, Media Reports". WSJ. Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  13. "The Facebook Company Is Now Meta". Meta. 2021-10-28. Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  14. "Our Progress Addressing Challenges and Innovating Responsibly". Meta. 2021-09-21. Retrieved 2023-05-08.
  15. Morrison, Sara (2022-09-06). "Meta hasn't "really learned the right lesson," whistleblower Frances Haugen says". Vox. Retrieved 2023-05-08.
  16. "Frances Haugen says Facebook is 'making hate worse'" (in en-GB). BBC News. 2021-10-25. 
  17. Filipovic, Jill (2021-10-06). "Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen confirms our worst fears". CNN. Retrieved 2023-05-08.
  18. "Facebook Whistleblower Is Leftist Activist Repped By Lawyer For 'Whistleblower' Behind Trump Impeachment". The Daily Wire. Retrieved 2023-05-08.
  19. Seetharaman, Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa (2021-09-14). "Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show" (in en-US). Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660.