Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed as ‘whistleblower’ behind leaked documents that plunged the company into scandal
"The revelations amount to perhaps the most significant crisis in the company’s 17-year history and may have impacts for regulators
In an interview with The Washington Post, Haugen said that while working at Facebook in the company’s civic integrity division, she realized it was not disclosing important information about the harms of its products to the public and the policymakers tasked with regulation, creating a situation she said posed a threat to democracy.
“Facebook in its current form is dangerous,” she said. “It became necessary to get the public involved.”
For Facebook, the document leak — and the public reveal of the source — represents perhaps the most significant crisis in the company’s history, further deteriorating relationships between the company and Washington politicians. The company is the target of a historic federal antitrust case and is fielding document requests as members of Congress investigate its role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Widely referred to as a “Facebook whistleblower” responsible for leaking documents behind a Wall Street Journal series, Haugen spoke publicly about her complaint to federal authorities, disclosing her identity for the first time in an interview airing Sunday night on “60 Minutes.”
“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,” Haugen said in the interview.
A veteran of tech companies including Pinterest, Yelp and Google, Haugen, 37, left Facebook in May after developing serious reservations about the company’s policies, particularly surrounding the events of Jan. 6. Before the 2020 election, Haugen said, Facebook implemented measures to prevent the spread of misinformation, but the company decided to dissolve many of these protections after the election. She said she stopped trusting that her employer was willing to limit growth to improve public safety.
“As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off, or they changed the settings back to what they were before to prioritize growth over safety,” she said. “And that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me.”
Haugen’s lawyers have filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has broad oversight over financial markets and can bring charges against companies suspected of misleading investors, resulting in fines or other penalties for companies and executives. The complaints compare Haugen’s findings with the company’s public statements, according to “60 Minutes.” The SEC did not comment Sunday on the documents or whether it planned to bring action against Facebook.
Facebook spokesperson Lena Pietsch said in a statement: “Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place. … To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), whose congressional panel will hear testimony from Haugen on Tuesday, said in a phone interview following Haugen’s “60 Minutes” appearance that the SEC should take “very seriously” her allegations that Facebook may have misled its investors and should be “very likely investigating formally.”
“Facebook certainly misled and deceived the public, and so their investors may well have been deceived as well,” Blumenthal added.
Blumenthal said that in addition to delving into how Facebook’s products harm children, lawmakers at the hearing will dig into Haugen’s claim that the social media giant undermined its safety efforts by disbanding the civic integrity team she worked on after the 2020 election.
Lawmakers for years have threatened legislation they say would increase Facebook’s responsibility for privacy abuses or amplifying harmful or misleading content. But to date Congress has not passed any comprehensive social media bills into law, allowing companies like Facebook to flourish largely unhindered by legal restrictions.
“A lot of what Facebook is doing isn’t illegal because they hid the information that politicians would have needed to create regulations that addressed it,” she said.
“But you can’t lie to your investors.”
Haugen, who has worked in the tech industry since 2006, said she knew coming into Facebook that the company had problems, but she was shocked by the extent to which misinformation was fomenting violence and other problems around the world.
“I thought I knew how bad misinformation was,” she said. “Then I learned what it was doing in countries that don’t speak English.”
Because of her concern for Facebook’s impact in developing countries, she says she hopes to advance language agnostic solutions for that might reduce the spread of misinformation around the word. For instance, she said Facebook could introduce measures to slow down the spread of posts around covid, such as capping the number of times a post can be re-shared.
“I don’t understand in a crisis why we can’t just do that,” she said. “We should just have a little friction.”
Her plea comes as the White House and other policymakers are scrutinizing the role falsehoods on Facebook may play in preventing people from getting vaccinated during the pandemic.
For weeks, revelations from the documents, which were at the center of the Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series, have bolstered claims that Facebook’s researchers and executives have a deep understanding of the ways its products harm people — beyond what had been previously known to the public and key policymakers. The wide-ranging documents represent an unprecedented look inside Facebook’s struggles with an assortment of problems including child safety, political polarization, human trafficking and drug cartels.
Andrew Bakaj, who represents Haugen at Whistleblower Aid, said it was “immediately clear” that she had materials that were critical for lawmakers and regulators seeking to hold the company accountable.
“She’s a perfect example of why whistleblowers are so important: Without her, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Bakaj told The Post.
The material has only added to the embattled company’s woes in Washington, including Haugen’s upcoming testimony before the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee Tuesday and documents she has shared with congressional offices probing Facebook. Haugen said she hopes the leaks will aid lawmakers to “get the fortitude and motivation to go put those regulations into place.”
Facebook has sought to deny and deflect the revelations, downplaying the documents — even tearing into its own internal research — in blog posts, interviews and congressional testimony. Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, appeared Sunday morning on CNN, calling allegations that the company is to blame for the violence on Jan. 6 “ludicrous.” (The company’s top executives, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, have not addressed the reports.)
“The responsibility for the violence on January the 6th and the insurrection on that day lies squarely with the people who inflicted the violence and those who encouraged them, including then-President Trump and candidly many other people in the media who were encouraging the assertion that the election was stolen,” Clegg said.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have demanded that Facebook turn over documents pertaining to its handling of the Jan. 6 insurrection, including an order from the House select committee investigating the matter to preserve communications on its platforms related to the riot at the Capitol. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said at the time that the company looks “forward to continuing to work with the committee” in the House but did not say whether it will fully comply with the requests. Lawmakers across Capitol Hill have at times criticized the company for not turning over documents about its policies and practices on misinformation, violent rhetoric and more.
Despite repeated pleas from lawmakers to make more of its research public, so far the company has turned over two partially redacted slide decks looking at Instagram’s impact on children and teens’ mental health, along with annotations downplaying their findings.
The company agreed to partially comply with the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendation that the company take “a comprehensive review” of its impact on the events of Jan. 6, reflecting on “the design and policy choices that … may enable its platform to be abused.” Instead Facebook committed to making data available to a select group of its existing research partners.
Clegg said despite the public backlash, Facebook would continue to do research into the negative impacts of its products.
“We’re going to continue to ask ourselves these difficult questions,” Clegg said in the interview.
Facebook has been under the microscope in Washington for nearly five years for concerns ranging from foreign disinformation to privacy abuses. The company is already the target of a historic Federal Trade Commission antitrust case, which it is expected to respond to on Monday. In 2019, it also had to pay a record-setting$5 billion fine to settle with the FTC over alleged privacy abuses.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill responded last week by hauling Facebook executive Antigone Davis before Congress to testify on a Wall Street Journal report, including company research that showed that Facebook-owned Instagram was making teen girls’ body image issues worse. At the hearing, lawmakers accused Facebook of burying these findings and pledged to further investigate the matter.
Haugen addressed the findings about social media’s impact on teen girls in the “60 Minutes” interview.
“As these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed,” Haugen said. “And it actually makes them use the app more. And so, they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more.”
Haugen is going public with her findings amid a growing debate about the power and influence of the world’s largest tech companies and a growing push from countries worldwide to pursue regulation.
“It’s important because Big Tech is at an inflection point,” said Bakaj, her lawyer. “It touches every aspect of our lives — whether it’s individuals personally or democratic institutions globally. With such far-reaching consequences, transparency is critical to oversight, and lawful whistleblowing is a critical component of oversight and holding companies accountable.”