A Facebook whistleblower who brought internal documents detailing the company’s research to The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Congress unmasked herself ahead of an interview she gave to “60 Minutes,” which aired Sunday night.
Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, according to her website, revealed herself as the source behind a trove of leaked documents. On her personal website, she shared that during her time at the company, she “became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety — putting people’s lives at risk. As a last resort and at great personal risk, Frances made the courageous act to blow the whistle on Facebook.”
Haugen previously worked as a product manager at Pinterest, Yelp and Google, according to her LinkedIn profile. She also lists herself as the technical co-founder behind the dating app Hinge, saying she took its precursor, Secret Agent Cupid, to market.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” Haugen told “60 Minutes.”
Haugen told “60 Minutes” she left Facebook in May.
Jeff Horwitz, the Journal reporter who wrote the series of articles based on the leaked documents, also shared Haugen’s identity on Twitter on Sunday night, revealing her as the key source behind the stories.
The documents, first reported by the Journal, revealed that Facebook executives had been aware of negative impacts of its platforms on some young users, among other findings. For example, the Journal reported that one internal document found that of teens reporting suicidal thoughts, 6% of American users traced the urge to kill themselves to Instagram.
Facebook has since said that the Journal’s reporting cherry-picked data and that even headlines on its own internal presentations ignored potentially positive interpretations of the data, like that many users found positive impacts from engagement with their products.
“Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place,” Facebook spokesperson Lena Pietsch said in a statement following Haugen’s identity reveal. “We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Facebook VP of Content Policy Monika Bickert addressed the research in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Monday.
“If we were a company who didn’t care about safety, if we were about trying to prioritize profit over safety, we wouldn’t do this kind of research,” Bickert said. “The whole point is understanding how we can be better and make a better experience.”
Haugen said she decided this year to make Facebook’s internal communications public, saying she realized she would need to do so “in a systemic way” and “get out enough that no one can question that this is real.”
Haugen in turn copied and released tens of thousands of pages of documents, “60 Minutes” reported.
Haugen pointed to the 2020 election as a turning point at Facebook. She said Facebook had announced it was dissolving the “Civic Integrity” team, to which she was assigned, after the election. Just a few months later, social media communications would be a key focus in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“When they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I was like, ‘I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous,'” Haugen told “60 Minutes.”
Facebook told the news program that it had distributed the work of the Civic Integrity team to other units.
Haugen pointed to Facebook’s algorithm as the element that pushes misinformation onto users. She said Facebook recognized the risk of misinformation to the 2020 election and therefore added safety systems to reduce that risk. But, she said, Facebook loosened those safety measures once again after the election.
“As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off or they changed the settings back to what they were before, to prioritize growth over safety,” Haugen said. “And that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me.”
In an interview with the Journal published shortly after the “60 Minutes” piece began to air, Haugen said she had found much of the research she took with her in Facebook’s internal employee forum, which she said was accessible to virtually all Facebook employees. She looked for research from colleagues she admired, according to the Journal, which she often found in goodbye posts calling out Facebook’s alleged failures.
Haugen also told the Journal that she openly questioned why Facebook didn’t hire more workers to tackle its issues with human exploitation on its platforms, among other things.
“Facebook acted like it was powerless to staff these teams,” she told the Journal.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told the Journal that it has “invested heavily in people and technology to keep our platform safe, and have made fighting misinformation and providing authoritative information a priority.”
Lawmakers have appeared unmoved by Facebook’s responses to the Journal’s reporting based on Haugen’s disclosures. During a hearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection Thursday, senators on both sides of the aisle lambasted the company, urging it to make its temporary pause on building an Instagram platform for kids permanent. The lawmakers said they did not have faith Facebook could be a good steward of such a platform based on the reports and past behavior.
The whistleblower is scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection on Tuesday. Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis told lawmakers on Thursday that Facebook would not retaliate against the whistleblower for her disclosures to the Senate.
Still, Bickert would not commit that Facebook would refrain from suing Haugen during her “Squawk Box” interview.
“Facebook’s actions make clear that we cannot trust it to police itself,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement Sunday night. “We must consider stronger oversight, effective protections for children, and tools for parents, among the needed reforms.”
Haugen said she has “empathy” for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, saying he “has never set out to make a hateful platform. But he has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful, polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach.”
She called for more regulations over the company to keep it in check.
“Facebook has demonstrated they cannot act independently Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety,” Haugen told “60 Minutes.” “It is subsidizing, it is paying for its profits with our safety. 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. That’s my hope.”
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