Frances Haugen: “I never wanted to be a whistleblower. But lives were in danger ‘| Facebook

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TIt was not Frances Haugen’s plan A. The Facebook whistleblower says she doesn’t like being the center of attention, but what she saw while working in Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire pushed her to take action – and l ‘made famous.

“When I look at what I did, it wasn’t my plan A. It wasn’t my plan B, it wasn’t my plan C. It was like my plan J or something like that. “she laughs. “No one made me sit down and said ‘what I want you to do is whistleblowing’.”

But that’s what Haugen did. In May of this year, she quit her job as product manager at the social media giant and took with her tens of thousands of internal documents. The documents sparked a whirlwind of allegations, including that Facebook knew its products were harming adolescent mental health, fueling ethnic violence in countries like Ethiopia and failing to tackle misinformation before the riots in the country. January 6 in Washington. On Monday, Haugen will present her damning views on the company in Westminster when she testifies before MPs and peers. Meanwhile, Facebook is sinking deeper into the crisis.

Haugen, 37, says the turning point came when she moved in with her mother, who had given up an academic career to become a priest. “I’m really lucky that my mother is an episcopal priest,” says Haugen, who was born and raised in Iowa. “I lived with her for six months last year and was in deep distress because I was seeing these things inside of Facebook and was sure that was not going to be fixed at the inside Facebook. “

His concerns about an apparent lack of security checks in non-English speaking markets, such as Africa and the Middle East, where the Facebook platform was used by human traffickers and armed groups in Ethiopia, have was a key factor in his decision to act.

“I did what I thought was necessary to save people’s lives, especially in the Global South, which I think are threatened by Facebook’s prioritization of profits over people. If I had not presented these documents, it would never have been revealed.

Speaking to Observer on a video link, Haugen displays none of the stress you’d expect from a nearly $ 1bn (£ 730bn) company with its ranks of lawyers and advisers. Haugen’s expansive and upbeat responses, sometimes punctuated with laughter, contrast with the measured performance she gave to U.S. Senators on Capitol Hill on October 5 in which she memorably accused the company of passing on “the astronomical profits. before people ”. It’s the kind of conversation you would expect to have with a successful Silicon Valley professional working at one of the world’s largest tech companies, Haugen was until five months ago.

“We intentionally didn’t do a lot of interviews because it’s not about me, it’s about the documents,” she says. “I don’t throw birthday parties because I don’t like to be the center of attention.”

Haugen says her friends and family have been supportive of her since she showed up this month as the source of a series of the Wall Street newspaper revelations based on his leaks. “A friend of mine, just before testifying, told me this wonderful saying, it’s what I repeat to myself when I have anxiety, that is to say, it is not not from you: you are the conduit for the documents, ”she said.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, controls the majority of the company’s voting shares. Photograph: Bloomberg / Getty Images

Haugen says his new home, next to the Atlantic Ocean in Puerto Rico, is helping. She talks to Observer from the Caribbean island and the United States in its capital San Juan, where she enjoys an anonymity that she doubts that she would have been granted in northern California.

“I feel very lucky to live in Puerto Rico because no one has ever recognized me here.”

She adds, “I think if I was still living in San Francisco it would be really stressful because I’m sure people would recognize me there. In San Juan, she says, it’s “much easier to stay sane. Here I can go swimming or… I like to cook. I can go to any small market and I feel like a normal person. So it hasn’t really been a big change. “

There are also health reasons for moving from Puerto Rico. Ten years ago she was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, and in 2014 she entered an intensive care unit with a blood clot in her thigh. She has recovered, but still suffers from nerve damage in her legs.

Haugen admits she doesn’t look forward to the colder weather when she arrives in Europe, on a trip that includes her meeting in Westminster on Monday and the annual convention Web Summit technical conference in Lisbon next week. But she’s in high demand, and the documents she leaked continue to make waves, with reports being re-released in those notes by a group of media organizations, including the New York Times, on WSJinitial efforts of. This weekend it was reported that Facebook failed in its attempt to curb hate speech before the January 6 riots in Washington, and that employees repeatedly raised concerns before and after the US presidential election, when Donald Trump tried to overturn the victory by Joe Biden.

The revelations have been relentless since the WSJ began to account for documents and give the impression of a business unable or unwilling to deal with the consequences of its far-reaching scale. Facebook’s family of apps – including its main platform, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp – are used by 2.8 billion people per day. As politicians and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic move closer, it has been reported that Zuckerberg will be announcing a rebranding of the parent company this week in an effort to distance his company from the disclosures.

For Haugen, Zuckerberg is a big part of the problem. Facebook’s founder and CEO controls the majority of the company’s voting stock, making his position unassailable. That needs to change, Haugen says, and she believes Facebook’s independent investors would seek change at the top if they could.

“I believe in the rights of shareholders and shareholders, or shareholders without Mark, have been asking for a share, a vote for years. And the reason is, I’m pretty sure shareholders would choose other leadership if they had an option. “

Amid revelations about Instagram’s damaging impact on adolescent mental health and Facebook’s failure to control hate speech and right-wing disinformation in its home market, Haugen says Zuckerberg has not shown that he could protect the public from the negative effects of his networks.

January 6 riots at the United States Capitol
Recent reports suggest that Facebook failed in its attempt to curb hate speech ahead of the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Photograph: Julio Cortez / AP

“He’s in control. He has no oversight and he has not shown that he is willing to govern this business to the level necessary for public safety. “

In a statement, Facebook said: At the heart of these stories is a premise that is wrong. Yes, we are a business and we make a profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of the safety or well-being of people misunderstands where our own business interests lie. The truth is, we’ve invested $ 13 billion and have over 40,000 people doing a job: keeping people safe on Facebook. “

Facebook reported net income, a U.S. measure of profits, of $ 29 billion (£ 21 billion) last year.

The spokesperson added: “We have no business or moral incentive to do anything other than give as many people as possible a positive experience. Like every platform, we are constantly making tough decisions between free speech and damaging speech, security and other issues, and we don’t make those decisions in a vacuum – we rely on the input of our teams. , as well as on external topics. experts to browse them. But drawing those societal lines is always best left to elected leaders, which is why we have spent many years advocating for updated internet regulation.

Haugen’s appearance in London on Monday is before the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill. The bill – which Boris Johnson has pledged to speed up – places a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content, or face the threat of multibillion-pound fines from of the communications regulator, Ofcom.

Haugen says she is still thinking about what to say about the bill, but supports at least one of its measures, which requires companies like Facebook to give Ofcom a “risk assessment” of the bill. content that harms users. “I believe in things like risk assessments. Facebook should have to provide articulations of what they think are the risks on the platform. Right now, Facebook never gives us details on how they’re going to fix the issues. Before leaving Facebook, Haugen worked on the company’s civic integrity team which, before its disbandment, had been tasked with monitoring election interference on the platform.

Haugen wants to see more ‘friction’ introduced into Facebook’s systems, such as Twitter asking users to read a link before posting, that the Facebook platform adopts a chronological, and therefore less provocative, news feed, and that ‘greater transparency be forced. about the company. Facebook, and the huge amounts of data it accumulates internally, must be the subject of regular and ad hoc review by regulators, Haugen says.

“There has to be a way where we can escalate a concern and they actually have to give us an answer. “

In the future, Haugen wants to create a non-profit organization that supports this kind of social media reform. “These are the solutions that will protect people in the world’s most fragile places. “

In the meantime, she hopes Zuckerberg and his senior colleagues will listen.

“I am hopeful that my disclosure will be big enough and impact enough that he has a chance to say, ‘I made mistakes, I want to start over,'” she said. “Because the point of moral bankruptcy is to say that you deserve a chance to start over, that we as a society do better when people have a chance to erase the slate.”


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