Thanks to revelations from one former Facebook insider, 2021 was a year of reckoning for the tech giant.
Imy Harper, narrating:
Hi, I’m Imy – and this is the Sensemaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
Now, you probably haven’t heard my voice on here before.
I work on the Sensemaker podcast, but behind the scenes – I make sure we have a new story, every day, to tell you.
But over Christmas and the New Year, we’re doing something a little bit different: we’re asking: who are the people that really helped us make sense of 2021?
And today, the story of Frances Haugen, the woman who put Facebook on the back foot.
For years now there’s been a lot of anxious discussion in the news, and among politicians, about what social media is doing to us:
“Growing concerns about the impact of social media on children’s mental health”ITV, 2018
“The problem is a dangerous online community has been created through social media”Sky News, 2014
“Here in the US, Americans are creating fake accounts on social media sites to further divide our country and spread false information”
About how it’s influencing our politics, our economies – even our brains.
We talk about “breaking up big tech”, and how these companies simply have too much power. And there’s one social media company that’s bigger and more influential than any other.
Across its platforms, it has three billion users.
Three billion people posting, messaging, clicking, liking and sharing content.
That company is of course Facebook – or as it now wants to be known – Meta. The business that owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp.
And Facebook has been in the hot seat with politicians plenty of times.
“Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by members of the European Parliament today. He was questioned about his company’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”CBS, 2018
“Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg heads to capitol hill tomorrow he’s set to testify on social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.”NBC News, 2021
“The US govt and more than 40 states are suing Facebook. They are accusing the social media of using illegal tactics to squash competition and eliminate rivals.”CBSN
But until recently, none of these problems – none of these scandals – really seemed to stick.
At least, that was the case until earlier in 2021, when a slew of internal company documents were leaked to the press.
“At some point in 2021 I realised ok, I’m going to have to do this in a systematic way and get out enough information so that no one can question if it’s real.”Frances Haugen, CBS 60 Minutes
That’s Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind the Facebook leak. She’s a 37-year-old data engineer, originally from Iowa, with a business degree from Harvard.
She’s got an impressive CV.
Frances Haugen was a tech founder in her own right: she helped co-found the dating app Hinge and has worked at other big tech firms too, with stints at Pinterest and Google.
Her last gig was at Facebook. She joined the company in 2019 to work for the “civic integrity” team: the section of the company that works to counter misinformation worldwide.
But that team got disbanded in 2020 and after a few years at Facebook, Frances Haugen was feeling disillusioned.
She spent her last few months on the job painstakingly collecting tens of thousands of pages from company message boards, research papers and internal audits.
Could Frances Haugen’s leaked papers finally force change at the tech giant?
The revelations were damning.
They showed that not only did Facebook know that it’s platforms were causing harm and spreading hate and misinformation.
The company didn’t do very much to stop it, even though it definitely could have done.
It knew that Instagram was harming teen mental health and fuelling body-image issues.
It knew that people were using Facebook to drum up support for the January 6th Capitol riot in Washington on its platforms, but it didn’t act to stem the tide of content.
That’s not all.
Frances Haugen’s documents suggested that the company has bent its content rules to pander to political leaders. She uncovered evidence that it had failed to stop its platforms being used by human traffickers and drug cartels.
So, why isn’t Facebook doing anything to rectify these problems?
In a hearing with the United States Congress, Haugen told politicians that it’s all about the money:
“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”Frances Haugen, C-Span
And the person ultimately responsible for making these decisions about what to prioritize: safety… or the bottom line? CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“In the end, the buck stops with Mark. There’s no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”Frances Haugen, C-Span
Frances Haugen says she never wanted to be a whistleblower, that her plan was never to try and tear down Mark Zuckerberg’s company.
She moved to the island of Puerto Rico in March to keep out of the limelight but she did what she thought needed to be done to save lives.
And in response to the damning revelations, Facebook has certainly changed recently.
In fact, it’s gone through a wholesale rebrand.
“It is time for us to adopt a new company brand to encompass everything that we do to reflect who we are and what we hope to build. I am proud to announce that starting today our company is now Meta.”Mark Zuckerberg
The company is now called “Meta” and it’ll be pivoting to designing virtual reality experiences.
The timing of the announcement seemed convenient.
Frances Haugen had testified before Congress just a few weeks before – and the Facebook papers were still top of the news.
But those problems? They aren’t going to disappear.
Thanks to Frances Haugen, 2021 was the year we discovered what was really going on inside Facebook.
And thanks to her we’ve got the evidence to prove it.
Today’s story was written by Ella Hill and produced by Studio Klong.