Frances Haugen, who was hired by Facebook to correct dangerous distortions on its platform, had seen enough.
She and many others had placed their trust in the promises of Facebook’s global social network that it would fix itself. This was a terrible mistake. She concluded that the only thing worse than Facebook’s sibling Instagram was its resistance to change. The world needed to know.
The 37-year old data scientist, accused Facebook of pursuing safety over profit , was probably the most important decision of her entire life.
It is a young industry that has grown into one of the most powerful forces in society. This spotlighted a growing threat: The age of Big Tech whistleblowers has most certainly arrived.
Jonas Kron, Trillium Investment Management, said that there has been a general awakening in workers at tech companies, asking “What are they doing here?”. This has led Google to improve protection for employees who raise concerns about corporate misdeeds.
He said, “When there are hundreds of thousands of people asking the same question, it’s almost certain that you’ll get more whistleblowing.”
Haugen is the most prominent whistleblower. Her accusations that Facebook platforms incite violence against children and harm them — supported by thousands upon pages of company research — could be some of the most shocking.
She is not the only one joining a growing number of tech workers who are determined to speak up. Nearly all of them are women and observers believe that this is no accident.
Ellen Pao, an executive who sued Silicon Valley Investment firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination in 2012, stated that even after making progress, women, especially women of color, remain outsiders within the sector’s heavily male tech sector.
This status allows them to be more critical and to see “some systemic issues in ways that people who are part and parcel of it and are most benefiting from it, and who are deeply rooted in it, may not able to process,” she stated.
Workers at Google, Pinterest and Uber, along with others from Facebook, have raised alarms over what they believe to be gross abuses by power.
Their outspokenness is upsetting an industry that boasts its ability to improve society while making billions. Many workers, who are highly educated and well-paid, have always embraced this ethic. However, faith in the company’s line is declining for a growing number of workers.
There is a big difference between exposing your company’s failures to the outside world and stewing about them. Haugen knew this well.
It was terrifying and terrifying to do what she did. You know that your life will change the moment you begin your testimony,” stated Wendell Potter, a former executive in the insurance industry who exposed the practices of his peers.
Haugen has been hiding from the public since Tuesday’s appearance before Congress. Representatives claimed that Haugen and her lawyer were not available for comment.
Haugen, the Iowa-born daughter a doctor and a pastor turned academic, arrives in the spotlight with impressive credentials, including a Harvard Business degree and multiple patents.
Haugen was a local wunderkind long before she became whistleblower.
Haugen, who was raised near the University of Iowa campus where her father taught medicine to children, was part of a high school engineering team that ranked among the top 10 in the country. Haugen was born near the University of Iowa campus. Her father taught medicine. Haugen was a member of a high school engineering team that ranked in the top 10. Years later, one her elementary school teachers wrote about Haugen’s landing on Google. She described her as “horrifically brilliant” but not self-conscious.
She left Boston in the fall of 2002 to attend the Olin College of Engineering outside Boston.
Many people had turned down offers from top universities. However, they were attracted to Olin’s offer to provide a free education for the first arrivals and to help in the creation of something new. Lynn Andrea Stein, a computer scientist professor, stated that many had rejected offers from top universities.
However, the school was not accredited until it started producing graduates. This made it non-entity to some employers, and presented a problem for Haugen and others.
Stein stated that “the Google folks actually threw her application out without reading it.”
Stein sent an email to Haugen that described Haugen’s “voracious learner” and “absolutely can-do” personality. Stein was able to persuade the company not to continue its current position.
Haugen was a Google employee who worked on two projects: one to make thousands more books available on mobile phones and the other to create a social network.
Google paid Haugen for a Harvard graduate business degree. A classmate claimed that they were still having deep discussions about new technology’s societal impacts.
“Smartphones were only becoming a thing. Jonathan Sheffi, who graduated in 2011 with Haugen, said that they talked a lot about ethical data use and not building things the right way. “She was always very interested in technology and people’s well-being.
Sheffi claimed that he laughed when he saw recent social media posts questioning Haugen’s motivations for whistleblowing.
He said, “Nobody puts Frances up against anything.”
Haugen and another Harvard student created an online dating platform for like-minded friends. This template was later used by Haugen’s partner to create Hinge, which is a dating app.
Haugen was back at Google before moving on to Yelp or Pinterest. At each stop, he worked with the algorithms that were designed to understand users’ needs and match them with content and people who fit their interests.
A recruiter from Facebook contacted Haugen in late 2018. Haugen said that she was interested in a job that involved working with Facebook to address misinformation and democracy. Managers were told by Haugen that she had spoken to a friend about white nationalism and how she wanted to stop it from happening.
She joined a Facebook group that focused on international election activity in June 2019. She said that she was frustrated by the widespread misinformation that she saw online, which she felt stoked violence.
In May, she resigned after having worked for weeks to review company research and copy thousands upon documents. She told congressional investigators that she was not trying to destroy Facebook. But she said she just wanted to change it.
During her testimony last week, she stated that “I believe in Facebook’s potential.” We can have social media that we love, that connects us without tearing down our democracy, putting children at risk, or sowing ethnic violence all over the globe. We can do better.”
Perhaps, but industry experts say that Facebook and other tech giants will be digging in.
“There will be an internal crackdown. It already has,” Ifeoma Ozoma said. She is a whistleblower at Pinterest and now wants to encourage other tech workers to expose corporate misconduct. “In this way, there’s a chilling impact through the increased surveillance employees will be subject to.”
Many whistleblowers are rooting for Haugen. They praise her for her calm intellect, gutsiness and ability to find the paperwork that supports her case.
“What she did right is that she had all her documentation in one place and did it up front. Eileen Foster, an ex-executive at Countrywide Financial, said that she will be able to do this. She was a former banker who lost her job after uncovering widespread fraud in subprime loan approvals in 2008.
Sophie Zhang, a former employee of Facebook, claimed that the social network ignored fake accounts that were used to undermine foreign election. She said that she was shocked the company hadn’t caught Haugen while she was doing company research. The company’s executives are now denying everything.
She said that she believes they have fallen into a trap in which they continue to deny and hunker down, becoming more incendiary. “And this causes more people come forward.”
Foster said that Haugen’s actions could make it difficult for her to get a job in the industry. Facebook will be able to pursue Haugen for taking documents. A single employee cannot match the resources it has.
Foster recalls the moment Countrywide’s boss, an ally of hers, asked her to give up.
“He said, “Eileen, what are you doing?” You’re a tiny speck. Foster replied, “A speck!”
She knows better now, years later, having endured bullying from colleagues and rejections by her employers. She doesn’t regret her decisions. She feels the same conviction in Haugen even though their whistleblowing has been separated by a generation.
She said, “I wish Frances all the best.”