Whistleblowers have become something of a seasonal trend in our changing political and technological landscape. Individuals with a very good moral compass turn up once in a while like Morpheus in The Matrix and give the shady underworking of corporate and individuals that are exploiting the system.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal, NSA of course, and the scam of Elizabeth Holmes ( the Therans founder) are a few good examples of why some people who betray the authority for a noble cause are necessary.
Yet again, another whistleblower named Frances Haugen rose to prominence this week from a company that has long faced continuous criticism i.e. Facebook.
Haugen, a former employee of the company has spoken out against Facebook’s lack of proper resource funding and mismanagement to combat misinformation along with their priority to profit over everything. But she doesn’t have grudges towards Facebook, and it’s all evident from her journey at the social media giant.
Frances Haugen’s Background, Parents
37-year-old Frances was a bright student who grew up in her hometown of Ohio. The whistleblower’s father was a doctor whereas her mother is a college professor.
Ever since a kid, she was always fascinated with Maths and had tons of books lying in her house. For someone really good at maths, her talent was apparent due to the mere fact that Haugen was hired by tech giant Google while she was still studying at Harvard University.
What distinguished Frances from many smart people among the crowd is her free nature and spirit. She even found solace in volunteering at Burning Man Festival as a ranger. Apart from Google, Haugen worked for notable platforms that include Pinterest, Yelp, and dating app Hinge.
But a bigger and challenging step into her life came after she was hired by another giant lurking in our phones, Facebook.
Frances In Facebookland
On 29th June 2019, Frances stepped into Facebook headquarter that was almost a size of a village. She looked at the badge on her and the hopes were really high at this point. This wasn’t just another job to be put on her resume because the role she was about to take on meant more to her: a big responsibility to correct the wrong in the algorithm.
Just a year before in 2017 presidential election, Frances had lost a friendship in the hands of algorithms and fake news. Her friend ( not boyfriend) suddenly started getting engrossed in some wildest conspiracy theories out there.
When Frances tried to warn him and fact check the false claims such as the new world order, he would instead make another claim that all media was in hands of elites.
He got really radicalized and while I don’t blame Facebook, I blame platforms like Facebook and Reddit for it. He believed George Soros ran the world economy. It was hard to convince him that he was reading misinformation.
But the saddest part here was the fact that these two friends eventually drifted apart. And this was among the reason Frances felt she could make a difference in fighting misinformation. After all, she was full of special skills, she knew how to make the algorithms work, manage rankings through coding and all that stuffs people without coding background won’t understand including me,
But yeah, in Frances’s own words in an interview with WSJ, she thought she could change things at Facebook. But, she was very wrong.
Facebook Was Doing Bare Minimum To Fight Misinformation
Frances was appointed in the position of Product Manager at the Civic Misinformation Project. Basically, she worked with a team that focused on combating fake news and improve the algorithm from being misuse dot spread lies, hatred.
But, just within few months, she realized that the resources and manpower allocated for the team weren’t enough with only four engineers working around her team.
Moreover, the time limit for project completion as important as civic misinformation was really short. For instance, in her first big project titled Narrow Cast Misinformation, the team was given just 12 weeks as a deadline. To understand why time wasn’t enough, they were working out on preventing the Russian interference in the 2020 US election from happening again.
To sum it up, the A.I and algorithm were solely left in charge of important issues in Facebook that had a severe impact on world events and the platform was keeping profit in mind above public safety.
Conflicts of interests between public safety and profits and growth are what plagues Facebook today
Ok, the main thing she was trying to improve upon is the algorithm embedded in Facebook that drives engagement over anything. Since A.I. is not human, trading racist posts will be featured on a racist individual’s timeline that’ll drive more engagement.
A bulimic girl who clicks on an ad on weight loss is more susceptible to getting continuous ads on weight loss and in turn harming her health. So yeah, in short, she wanted to improve the algorithm. But the resources being provided were scant for such an important issue with a lot at stake.
She knew Facebook could do more but wasn’t doing to their full potential and this drove her to have issues with health.
Seeing hateful and violent content popping on the trend of Facebook while she was unable to do anything made her have panic attacks and a crisis of conscience. The engagement based ranking was prioritizing sensationalism and misinformation
In Frances’s own words, the Capitol Riot attacks of 2020 could’ve been prevented by Facebook, because they knew the social signals in their data.
And the worse part is, her team was dismantled and it was becoming hard to live with the feeling that says inside: I can do so much more, I have a big responsibility to the society. This isn’t fair.
Frances Leaks Facebook’s Effortlessness
A normal person would just shake off these feelings and continue to work at a handsome salary for a prestigious company but Frances wasn’t one. Her conscience was eating her, she shared all of these with her parents who told her to follow her heart.
So, she left the company in May 2021 and decided to reveal to the world what was happening. The whistleblower contacted Jeff Horritwz, a journalist at Wall Street Journal, and made sure she could trust him. She gathered the internal documents, presented them to Congress, and applied for Whistleblower protection. And the rest lays bare before us.
Surprisingly, when asked if she hates Facebook, Frances responds she doesn’t and in fact wants to work with them to improve upon the change she wants to see.
Hate burns you out. If I could work at Facebook again, I would do that. I think the most important thing in the world is happening at Facebook. We have to figure out how to make social media safer, together. My former manager at Facebook is my role model. I want people in Facebook to know that solving problems together is better than solving them alone.
As of now, Frances Haugen is working with lawmakers and is vocal on her effort through her new Twitter handle and website.