Whistleblower says Facebook ‘chooses profits over safety’

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By Ryan Mac and Cecilia Kang

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 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. 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 (3), Frances Haugen revealed herself to be “Sean”,  the whistleblower against Facebook. A product manager who worked for nearly two years on the civic misinformation team at the social network before leaving in May, 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, 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,” Haugen said. She added, “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.”

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.

Haugen has also filed a whistleblower 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 Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and shared subsets of the documents with them.

The spotlight on Haugen is set to grow brighter. On Tuesday (5), she is scheduled to testify in Congress about Facebook’s impact on young users.

Haugen’s actions were a sign of how Facebook has turned increasingly leaky. As the company has grown into a behemoth with more than 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. 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 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 CEO, said in a meeting with employees in June 2020.

Facebook tried to preemptively push back against 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 whistleblower was likely to say on “60 Minutes” and calling the accusations “misleading.” On Sunday, Clegg appeared on CNN to defend the company, saying that 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 Haugen late Sunday. Lena Pietsch, a company spokesperson, 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, Haugen and her team set up a Twitter account for her and a personal website. On the website, Haugen was described as “an advocate for public oversight of social media.”

A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Haugen studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College and got a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University, 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.

Haugen’s complaint to the SEC 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 Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives to the company’s internal research and documents. In one cover letter, Haugen said Facebook contributed to election misinformation and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

While “Facebook has publicized its work to combat misinformation and violent extremism relating to the 2020 election and insurrection,” 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.”

After filing the SEC complaint, Haugen and her legal team contacted Blumenthal and Blackburn, 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, Blumenthal and Blackburn sent a letter to 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 Haugen showed that Facebook’s researchers have performed many studies on the effects that its products can have on teenagers, Blumenthal said in an interview last week. The company had engaged in “concealment and deception,” he said.

In an interview Sunday, Blumenthal said Haugen “has proved to be credible, courageous and compelling from her first visit with my office in late summer.”

-New York Times

 

The whistleblower who leaked thousands of internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal revealed herself Sunday (3) on CBS’ ‘60 Minutes’ as Frances Haugen, a former lead product manager on the company’s civic misinformation team – Robert Fortunato for CBS News/ 60 Minutes

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