Profit Over Safety: Whistleblower Frances Haugen Details Facebook's Deliberate Harm
The hits keep coming for Facebook. Last night, in an interview on “60 Minutes,” a former Facebook product manager described how she had leaked internal documents to The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper had published a series of eye-opening articles dubbed “The Facebook Files,” detailing what the social media giant knew about the harms its platform was causing. The previously anonymous whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, is scheduled to testify in Congress tomorrow. She has also filed a complaint with the S.E.C. accusing Facebook of misleading investors with public disclosures that did not match its internal actions. Facebook, which has been in damage-control mode because of the leaks, told The Times that “to suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Profit Over Safety
A Facebook whistle-blower explains her motivations.
By ANDREW ROSS SORKIN, JASON KARAIAN, SARAH KESSLER, STEPHEN GANDEL, MICHAEL J. DE LA MERCED, LAUREN HIRSCH and EPHRAT LIVNI, NY TIMES, October 4, 2021
The ‘Facebook Files’ now has a face
The hits keep coming for Facebook. Last night, in an interview on “60 Minutes,” a former Facebook product manager described how she had leaked internal documents to The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper had published a series of eye-opening articles dubbed “The Facebook Files,” detailing what the social media giant knew about the harms its platform was causing.
The previously anonymous whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, is scheduled to testify in Congress tomorrow. She has also filed a complaint with the S.E.C. accusing Facebook of misleading investors with public disclosures that did not match its internal actions. Facebook, which has been in damage-control mode because of the leaks, told The Times that “to suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Who is the whistle-blower? Haugen is a data scientist who was hired by Facebook in 2019 to work on democracy and misinformation issues. She left in May after finding the company’s efforts lacking. Haugen said that Facebook turned off safeguards after the 2020 election that would have stopped misinformation that, she believed, fueled the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than what I had seen before,” Haugen said. “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.”
How big a deal is the S.E.C. complaint? We don’t know whether Haugen’s S.E.C. complaint is based on financial filings or other public statements. Making a case based on nonfinancial statements can be tough. The wording in Facebook’s public disclosures about misinformation is broad.
The biggest problem for Facebook may be what has been revealed about the strength of its social network. The Times’s Kevin Roose writes that Facebook may be weaker than many think. The internal documents show that usage of some Facebook’s products is shrinking, while others are making users angrier. The company remains powerful but could be in decline. “Facebook’s next few years could be uglier than its last few,” Kevin writes, “especially if it decides to scale back its internal research and integrity efforts in the wake of the leaks.”
Whistle-Blower Says Facebook ‘Chooses Profits Over Safety’
Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager who left the company in May, revealed that she had provided internal documents to journalists and others.
By Ryan Mac and Cecilia Kang, NY TIMES, October 3, 2021
John Tye, the founder of Whistleblower Aid, a legal nonprofit that represents people seeking to expose potential lawbreaking, was contacted this spring through a mutual connection by a woman who claimed to have worked at Facebook.
The woman told Mr. Tye and his team something intriguing: She had access to tens of thousands of pages of internal documents from the world’s largest social network. In a series of calls, she asked for legal protection and a path to releasing the confidential information. Mr. Tye, who said he understood the gravity of what the woman brought “within a few minutes,” agreed to represent her and call her by the alias “Sean.”
She “is a very courageous person and is taking a personal risk to hold a trillion-dollar company accountable,” he said.
On Sunday, Frances Haugen revealed herself to be “Sean,” the whistle-blower against Facebook. A product manager who worked for nearly two years on the civic misinformation team at the social network before leaving in May, Ms. Haugen has used the documents she amassed to expose how much Facebook knew about the harms that it was causing and provided the evidence to lawmakers, regulators and the news media.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Ms. Haugen, 37, said she had grown alarmed by what she saw at Facebook. The company repeatedly put its own interests first rather than the public’s interest, she said. So she copied pages of Facebook’s internal research and decided to do something about it.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than what I had seen before,” Ms. Haugen said. She added, “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.”
Ms. Haugen gave many of the documents to The Wall Street Journal, which last month began publishing the findings. The revelations — including that Facebook knew Instagram was worsening body image issues among teenagers and that it had a two-tier justice system — have spurred criticism from lawmakers, regulators and the public.
Ms. Haugen has also filed a whistle-blower complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing Facebook of misleading investors with public statements that did not match its internal actions. And she has talked with lawmakers such as Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut, and Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican of Tennessee, and shared subsets of the documents with them.
The spotlight on Ms. Haugen is set to grow brighter. On Tuesday, she is scheduled to testify in Congress about Facebook’s impact on young users.
Ms. Haugen’s actions were a sign of how Facebook has turned increasingly leaky. As the company has grown into a behemoth with over 63,000 employees, some of them have become dissatisfied as it has lurched from controversy to controversy over data privacy, misinformation and hate speech.
In 2018, Christopher Wylie, a disgruntled former employee of the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, set the stage for those leaks. Mr. Wylie spoke with The New York Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian to reveal that Cambridge Analytica had improperly harvested Facebook data to build voter profiles without users’ consent.
In the aftermath, more of Facebook’s own employees started speaking up. Later that same year, Facebook workers provided executive memos and planning documents to news outlets including The Times and BuzzFeed News. In mid-2020, employees who disagreed with Facebook’s decision to leave up a controversial post from President Donald J. Trump staged a virtual walkout and sent more internal information to news outlets.
“I think over the last year, there’ve been more leaks than I think all of us would have wanted,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in a meeting with employees in June 2020.
Facebook tried to preemptively push back against Ms. Haugen. On Friday, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for policy and global affairs, sent employees a 1,500-word memo laying out what the whistle-blower was likely to say on “60 Minutes” and calling the accusations “misleading.” On Sunday, Mr. Clegg appeared on CNN to defend the company, saying the platform reflected “the good, the bad and ugly of humanity” and that it was trying to “mitigate the bad, reduce it and amplify the good.”
Facebook did not directly address Ms. Haugen late Sunday. Lena Pietsch, a company spokeswoman, said it was continuing “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.”
In preparation for revealing herself, Ms. Haugen and her team set up a Twitter account for her and a personal website. On the website, Ms. Haugen was described as “an advocate for public oversight of social media.”
A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Ms. Haugen studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College and got an M.B.A. from Harvard, the website said. She then worked on algorithms at Google, Pinterest and Yelp. In June 2019, she joined Facebook. There, she handled democracy and misinformation issues, as well as working on counterespionage, according to the website.
Ms. Haugen’s complaint to the S.E.C. was based on her document trove and consisted of many cover letters, seven of which were obtained by The Times. Each letter detailed a different topic — such as Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation after the 2020 election and the impact its products have on teenagers’ mental health — and accused the company of making “material misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors and prospective investors.”
The letters compared public statements and disclosures to lawmakers made by Mr. Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives to the company’s internal research and documents. In one cover letter, Ms. Haugen said Facebook contributed to election misinformation and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
While “Facebook has publicized its work to combat misinformation and violent extremism relating to the 2020 election and insurrection,” Ms. Haugen’s documents told a different story, one cover letter read. “In reality, Facebook knew its algorithms and platforms promoted this type of harmful content, and it failed to deploy internally recommended or lasting countermeasures.”
Mr. Tye said he had been in touch with the S.E.C.’s whistle-blower office and division of enforcement regarding Facebook. The S.E.C. typically provides protections for corporate tipsters that shield them from retaliation. The agency also provides awards of 10 percent to 30 percent to whistle-blowers if their tips lead to successful enforcement actions that yield monetary penalties of more than $1 million.
The S.E.C. did not respond to a request for comment.
After filing the S.E.C. complaint, Ms. Haugen and her legal team contacted Mr. Blumenthal and Ms. Blackburn, Mr. Tye said. The lawmakers had held a hearing in May about protecting children online, focusing on how companies like Facebook were collecting data through apps like Instagram.
In August, Mr. Blumenthal and Ms. Blackburn sent a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg asking Facebook to disclose its internal research about how its services were affecting children’s mental health. Facebook responded with a letter that played up its apps’ positive effects on children and deflected questions about internal research.
But documents from Ms. Haugen showed that Facebook’s researchers have performed many studies on the effects that its products can have on teenagers, Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview last week. The company had engaged in “concealment and deception,” he said.
In an interview on Sunday, Mr. Blumenthal said Ms. Haugen “has proved to be credible, courageous and compelling from her first visit with my office in late summer.”
Some of Ms. Haugen’s documents have also been distributed to the state attorneys general for California, Vermont, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Nebraska, Mr. Tye said.
But he said the documents were not shared with the Federal Trade Commission, which has filed an antitrust suit against Facebook. In a video posted by Whistleblower Aid on Sunday, Ms. Haugen said she did not believe breaking up Facebook would solve the problems inherent at the company.
“The path forward is about transparency and governance,” she said in the video. “It’s not about breaking up Facebook.”
Ms. Haugen has also spoken to lawmakers in France and Britain, as well as a member of the European Parliament. This month, she is scheduled to appear before a British parliamentary committee. That will be followed by stops at Web Summit, a technology conference in Lisbon, and in Brussels to meet with European policymakers in November, Mr. Tye said.
On Sunday, a GoFundMe page that Whistleblower Aid created for Ms. Haugen also went live. Noting that Facebook had “limitless resources and an army of lawyers,” the group set a goal of raising $10,000. Within 30 minutes, 18 donors had given $1,195. Shortly afterward, the fund-raising goal was increased to $50,000.
Ryan Mac is a technology reporter focused on corporate accountability across the global tech industry. He won a 2020 George Polk award for his coverage of Facebook and is based in Los Angeles. @RMac18
Cecilia Kang covers technology and regulation and joined The Times in 2015. She is the co-author, along with Sheera Frenkel of The Times, of “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination.” @ceciliakang
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