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2021 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate - Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen

Posted  December 14, 2021

When identifying this year’s possible Whistleblower of the Year candidates, Frances Haugen was perhaps the most obvious pick.  Everyone around the globe knows her story by now.  She is the former Facebook data scientist who several months ago – with the help of a cache of internal company documents – spoke out against what she sees as the perilous path Facebook has taken in broadening the reach of its social media empire.

And she came out with a bang, communicating her claims and concerns through a highly sophisticated media and public relations blitz.  It included her original breakout story in the Wall Street Journal, a highly-publicized interview on 60 Minutes, and feature follow-ups in Time, the New York Times, NPR, the Financial Times, Le Monde, and virtually every major publication in the U.S. and Europe.  She even has her own website and blog.

Haugen has not just relied on the press to communicate her concerns.  She has gotten the government involved too.  She made multiple submissions to the SEC under the agency’s Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program, detailing what she believes are Facebook’s multiple misrepresentations to investors.  And she has testified before Congress on what she describes as Facebook’s “profit before people” business model.  She delivered the same message to a host of European lawmakers and regulators too.

Haugen has made it very clear she is not quieting down any time soon.  Not until Facebook changes its ways or is forced by the government to do so.  Here are three of her biggest claims:

  • Facebook is intentionally contributing to the extreme polarization gripping this country, leading to an ever-expanding stream of political violence like the now-infamous January 6 Capitol riot.
  • Facebook’s Instagram platform and its inescapable feedback cycle is seriously harming the self-esteem and self-respect of teenage girls and young women.
  • Facebook does not employ appropriate safeguards against misinformation, allowing hateful, dangerous content to flow unrestrained, especially in countries where English is not commonly spoken.

All this, according to Haugen, is in furtherance of Facebook’s singular pursuit of increasing traffic and engagement, and ultimately — making the company more money.  As she told 60 Minutes: “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.  And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.

What makes Haugen such a powerful voice for Facebook’s alleged transgressions is her former position within the company.  She worked in the company’s Civic Integrity unit, specifically tasked with controlling the spread of misinformation, especially in connection with elections.  The company disbanded the group after the 2020 election, a breaking point for Haugen who attributed the decision to Facebook’s drive for profits.

As Haugen described it, “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.”  Having worked previously at Google, Yelp, and Pinterest, Haugen is no stranger to the importance of user engagement.  But for her, Facebook has gone way too far in how it prioritizes this engagement over public safety.

Her sentiment has resonated with virtually every constituency to which she has appealed.  Aside from her background and role at Facebook, what also has contributed to her widespread praise and approval is the thousands of internal company documents she has shared which ostensibly back up her claims.  This is no he said, she said type of whistleblower scenario.  It is a highly orchestrated, painstakingly strategized, evidence-based challenge by an extremely reliable and compelling source.

It is no wonder Haugen has put Facebook on its heels from the very beginning of her campaign.  And she has done so with the poise and grace of a seasoned professional, largely escaping the traditional tricks of the trade companies use to silence or discredit whistleblowers.  She also has been rigorous in staying on message, avoiding the blame game, and focusing on fixing the problem.  It is not that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg intended to create a platform of hate, Haugen has stressed.  It is that “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.”

And that is what Haugen is so desperately trying to stop.  Not from a place of conflict and confrontation.  But from working together to bring us to a better place.  “Together we can create social media that brings out the best in us.  We solve problems together — we don’t solve them alone.”  It is for her unwavering commitment to fixing what she sees as a serious wrong, taking on one of the world’s most powerful companies to do so, and doing it with such strength and dignity — that we nominate Frances Haugen for Constantine Cannon’s 2021 Whistleblower of the Year.


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