Frances Haugen is 37 years old. Like Mark Zuckerberg. Both studied at Harvard. She arrived with a degree in Computer Engineering to pursue a graduate degree. He, the fifth richest person on the planet, dropped out of college to devote himself to the profitable task of taking over the world by connecting it in a way never seen before in history. It is unlikely that their university years coincided. But their paths did cross in 2019, when Haugen was hired by Facebook, the nearly one trillion dollar (5.5 trillion reais) company that Zuckerberg founded 17 years ago.
In the last week, these two distantly parallel lives collided, and the whole world witnessed. Haugen had been making anonymous disclosures to the The Wall Street Journal, bringing to light information that made the social network plunge into its worst existential crisis. When she left the company in May, the former employee took thousands of internal documents with her, disappointed by what these papers show: that Facebook works with algorithms that encourage a discord that sometimes costs lives; that its tools are designed to create dependency and increase consumption; that they do little to control organized crime and that it is a lie that their more than 3 billion users are treated equally. And what caused the most revolt in the United States: that its managers knew that what they offer takes a not negligible portion of teenagers (13%) to the abyss of suicidal thoughts and anorexia. All this, according to Haugen, just for money.
On Sunday, she revealed her identity on prime-time television, and on Tuesday, she appeared in the Senate to demand that lawmakers put the brakes on Silicon Valley in the name of protecting childhood and adolescence. Sitting in front of congressmen, eyes wide open, the Facebook informant assumed, with her exemplary citizen face, the distinctly American archetype that James Stewart popularized in classic political cinema the woman makes the man, by Frank Capra: that of the individual who decides to face power for his ideals, that Mr. Smith who goes to Washington because he refuses to give up hope.
Having overcome the initial nervousness, Haugen seemed to enjoy the spotlight, even letting out the typical smile of the diligent student who proves, relieved, that she knows the answers to the questions on the test. For a moment, senators from both parties put aside their differences and treated her with courtesy. She stood her ground for more than three hours and even had some brilliant insights, as when she suggested a worthy exit to Facebook: “Declare your moral bankruptcy and admit your mistakes.” Or how when, when asked whether Zuckerberg can be held ultimately responsible for these algorithms, she exposed a sinuous reasoning that led to the magnate’s culpability without directly accusing him.
That same night, after a month of scandal, the man quoted broke his silence with a 1,200-word statement in which he did not even mention the name Haugen. The scandal of the past few weeks has frustrated many of the company’s new development plans, not just the Instagram Kids tool, which was paused at the end of last month.
The way in which the daughter of a doctor and a teacher who became an episcopal pastor managed to challenge the Goliath of technology also has a lot of moral history, which we reconstruct here from her confessions to the Journal and to CBS. Forged in Silicon Valley, Haugen suffered a stroke after leaving Google in 2014, which left her confined to her home for a year. His biggest help was an acquaintance of the family who ended up becoming a great friend. The relationship was broken when an insane exposure to the darkest parts of social media threw this friend over the edge of conspiracy theories and white nationalism. It was then that Haugen found his mission: to prevent the same from happening to other people.
Already recovered from her health problems, a job offer from Facebook in 2019 seemed to be a good way to achieve that purpose. She went to a department called Civic Integrity, dedicated to making the social network a healthy place clean of falsehood for political communication. Things didn’t go very well. After the elections that brought Joe Biden to the presidency, the team that Facebook had formed after suffering a severe blow to its reputation from the Cambridge Analytica scandal was disbanded. this data was used, among other things, in the 2016 campaign on behalf of Donald Trump. That same day, Haugen made contact, via an encrypted communication system, with a journalist from the The Wall Street Journal.
The January 6 attack on the Capitol, organized in the face of Facebook’s passivity, was the last straw. In March, disillusioned, she moved to Puerto Rico to work remotely. It was then that he began collecting material from Workspace, a social network within the social network, accessible to the company’s 60,000 employees. She was surprised at the amount of sensitive information available to any of them. When it became clear that he would not continue in his position, he left one last message in this forum: “I don’t hate Facebook, I love it and I want to save it”. Afterwards, he got in touch with Whistleblowers Aid, a non-profit organization that helps those who have sensitive material to spread in favor of democratic health. These disclosures are protected by US law.
Last week, Haugen created a blog that people can subscribe to (not yet receive anything), which says: “Frances firmly believes that the problems facing social media today are solvable. We can get them to reveal the best of the human condition again”. He also opened a Twitter account, which on Saturday already had more than 63,000 followers.
I believe we can do better.
— Frances Haugen (@FrancesHaugen) October 4, 2021
She follows just over 80 accounts. Among them, that of Nina Jankowicz, an author specializing in “disinformation, democracy and misogyny on the web”, who on Friday celebrated in a telephone conversation: “Congressmen of both parties finally saw the damage that digital platforms are inflicting on society and the little importance they give to our mental health, democracy and the circulation of rumors about covid-19″. “I believe this can mark a before and an after. And I think it’s possible that some law will come out of it. It remains to be seen whether it will focus only on protecting children or will tackle other problems as well”.
Right now, Haugen seems ready for anything. In his Tuesday hearing, he invoked the example of consumer protection laws, such as those dealing with fossil fuels and the use of seat belts in cars. They marked an era and today they are unquestionable. The diligent student managed to stir public opinion and lead the United States to wonder if Facebook has finally reached its “Big Tobacco Moment”, in reference to the historic 1998 agreement that banned the advertising of the big tobacco companies and forced them to pay billions of dollars to offset health costs related to the risks of smoking. Risks they have not sufficiently warned about, just as, according to Haugen, Facebook is now doing to its users.
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