How whistleblower Frances Haugen left Mark Zuckerberg speechless
Her greatest wish, she says, is real transparency. Imagine if Facebook posted daily data feeds on its most viral content, she says. “You would have YouTubers analyzing this data and explaining it to people. This point is expected to fuel upcoming regulations such as the European Union’s AI law, designed to force companies to deselect the code behind their AI algorithms for regulators.
While the 2018 Cambridge Analytica disclosures resulted in a fine, regulators ultimately left the social media giant alone and its shares rose steadily. It will likely be different, especially given the change in the White House and Congress since then. U.S. lawmakers recently introduced five anti-trust bills targeting the outsized power of Big Techs. In addition to its wealth of documents, Haugen offers lawmakers and regulators extensive insider knowledge.
With Haugen speaking publicly, it’s the silence of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg that rings the louder. They left it up to Clegg to try and explain the Facebook side of things. This is all the more alarming for investors as Haugen has taken to the SEC to claim that Facebook has indeed lied to shareholders about the impact of its algorithms.
She describes herself as an algorithm ranking specialist who, having worked on four social networks, including Alphabet’s Google and Pinterest, understands the intricacies of how computer code chooses what content people see. Her denunciation is more powerful both for her own past and for the sober approach she has taken. Going first to a newspaper that adopts an impartial approach in its corporate reporting isolates it from accusations that it is on an ideological mission.
On Facebook, Haugen says she attended regular meetings where staff shared their struggles to stop viral posts that showed beheadings, or posts that likened certain ethnic groups to bugs. She ultimately concluded that the underinvestment in security was inherent in Facebook and virtually impossible to change.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s communications and public policy manager, recently warned staff in an internal memo that they “will be getting questions from friends and family about these things.” Perhaps that is a British understatement.
What sets Haugen apart is how she acted on that tension, says Carissa Veliz, author of Privacy is power, a book on the surveillance economy that talks about whistleblowers as the moral canary in the Big Tech coal mine. Veliz says that when whistleblowers realize they can’t fix wrongdoing in a business, the cognitive dissonance they experience is so violent it’s unbearable.
“Most people try to explain it,” says Veliz. “But a whistleblower will decide he just can’t go on like this. They will decide to make a huge sacrifice and release this information. “
The next step is sure to be terrifying. Whistleblowers often deal not only with complaints from their employer, but also threat letters from lawyers. (What shouldn’t be lost in a future success for Haugen are the many whistleblowers who have been silenced by such threats.)
During the pandemic, Haugen left the Bay Area to live with his parents. Her mother, who is also an episcopal priest, told Haugen that she would have to make her concerns public if she believed lives were at stake.
With Haugen speaking publicly, it’s the silence of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg that rings the louder. They left it up to Clegg to try to explain the Facebook side of things. This is all the more alarming for investors as Haugen has taken to the SEC to claim that Facebook has indeed lied to shareholders about the impact of its algorithms.
Zuckerberg seems to have his head in the sand. In recent weeks, he has oddly posted a series of playful or pleasant posts on his Facebook page about fencing, surfing, and helping his kids raise money for charity.
He can still try to explain the revelations. But, as Veliz says, its employees will increasingly be faced with the idea that they are working for a toxic company. Others might be inclined to come forward as whistleblowers. It won’t be pretty.