Why This Facebook Whistleblower Is Skeptical of Meta's Recovery
So who's my guest this week, the Data Scientist and Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen. Is the personal cost outweighed by the wider good? This is the whistleblower's dilemma. Frances Haugen calls her decision to go public with what she discovered working at Facebook, not plan A, not even plan B, but plan J. But if it wasn't her initial intention, it's now become central to her life. Sharing tens of thousands of internal documents with the media and US law enforcement. She wanted to show that Meta, Facebook's parent company, knew the harm it was causing and carried on regardless.
The firm says Haugen's claims paint a false picture, and it makes no commercial sense to allow harmful content as advertisers don't want it. But you can only really whistle blow once. So what happens next? And how do you keep up the pressure for change when you're now an outsider? Here's what's coming up. Do you think of Facebook as having blood on his hands? Yes, unquestionably.
Facebook's own documents say Instagram isn't just bad for teenagers, it's not just bad for children, it's not just bad for them. It's actually worse than other forms of social media, because TikTok is about performance. It's about humor. It's about doing things with your friends.
Snapchat is about faces, about augmented reality. Reddit is at least nominally about ideas, right? But Instagram is about bodies and social comparison. Frances, thank you so much for being here for talking to me today and to all of us. Thank you for inviting me. Happy to be here.
Well, I mean, your voice has become very famous. Indeed, I wanted to start by asking how it's been since you've gone public as a whistleblower. You know, it's so interesting. I live in Puerto Rico and no one ever recognizes me there.
And I've been, I've been really shocked at like, in some ways my life has changed a lot, right? Like I can sleep now at night. So that's always a good thing. I do interviews like this, which is still surreal to me, but you know, it's enough separated from, like, San Francisco that, you know, I'm never recognized in that context.
And so my life hasn't really changed that much on a day to day basis. I'm amazed that I can have my DMs open online. Like you can DM me on Twitter and like, I don't even get harassed.
And so I know that compared to like female politicians, I've had an easy experience. Has that changed? Was it different when you first went public? Oh, no and even when I first went public. Okay.
I've gotten like maybe, maybe 10 mean messages ever. And like, I always respond to them, so. No one troll me. What's your technique? I don't know, I'm always willing to talk to my critics. And how, do they usually calm down a bit at that point? They usually don't respond, you know.
Who'd have thought they'd be rude, hey, but that's interesting. You also say now you can sleep at night. Yes. Were you not sleeping, when you worked at Facebook? It's really hard living with a secret, you know, like I think one of the things I had never really contemplated before I came out was whistleblowers, in general, are not in very good shape by the time they come out.
And like, one of the things that I had that I think was very different about my experience versus most people's is I lived with my parents during COVID. And so I had people who I completely trusted who I could talk to things about. And so by the time like I came out or by the time I acted, like I was already aligned with like what I needed to do. And I think for a lot of people who are whistleblowers, they live alone with a secret where they know people's lives are on the line and that process really eats away at you.
And, you know, I know that I did what I could. And so there's a wonderful release in that, right. It's very easy to sleep at night then. But I suppose with that, I mean, and you were not sleeping. You were stressed about what you knew. We'll get into that.
Did you need a certain level of grit, resilience to actually go through with it would you say because of course, you know, there are different types of whistleblower in different circumstances. Oh, unquestionably, we, actually I think, as a society need to talk more about the continuum of whistle blowing, like in the United States, you know, you can't sign a contract that prevents you from giving information to Congress that you believe is necessary for Congress to do oversight. You can be a very subtle, quiet whistleblower. It's just that people see the few whistleblowers that are out.
And so I think it's one of these things where if you know that what you need to do is necessary. You know, I've always been a long distance cyclist, you know, you just put on more miles, you know, you just keep going and I'm really happy with how things ended up. Were you scared just before, you know, what was that moment like? Yeah. I dunno even know what the moment was.
Yeah. That you blew the whistle. So I think there's like different sets of moments. So, while I was getting the information out of Facebook, I was very worried that I wouldn't be able to get out the information that was needed. Right, that I knew that this was very complicated that if you didn't get a representative set of documents that, you know, you could criticize it and say, this is not a full picture. And so, until I was done, I was very nervous that I would not finish, but I never worried about consequences because like, the number of lives that are on the line is astronomical, right? Like, I earnestly believe there are 10 or 20 million lives on the line in some of the most fragile places in the world.
When you say on the line, what do you mean? So so far we've had two major ethnic violence instances, genocides, that were, they were facilitated by social media. So, we had one in Myanmar where over 200,000 people died. We've had another one in Ethiopia over the last couple of years and we should not expect that to be the end.
We should expect that to be the beginning. And, but what's the difference between using social media to organize and using, I don't know, email. Oh, I'm so glad you asked. That's a wonderful question.
So in email, the service provider in general is not telling you what order to read your email in, right? There are not algorithms that give distribution to some ideas and not to others. In the case of Facebook, the algorithm changes they made in 2018 to go from just trying to keep you on the site as long as possible to trying to optimize for eliciting a reaction from you, changed what content got amplified. So, when they made that change, political parties across Europe, on the left, on the right said, "Hey, we know you changed the algorithm "because it used to be we could share the bread and butter "of democracy, like a white paper "on our agricultural policy "and it didn't get the most comments, "but we could see in the statistics it got read. "And now if we share that exact same content, it's just crickets." And it's because the algorithm now says, unless we can provoke a reaction from you, it's not good. And when you combine that bias in the algorithm, that extreme content gets the most distribution with linguistically diverse places like the most fragile places on earth are often linguistically diverse.
That means they're using the most dangerous version of Facebook. You know, no safety systems 'cause Facebook doesn't think there's enough people that speak that language and societies are already fragile. And so it's just very dangerous. And we've seen, more and more times where that gets weaponized in a context that leads to tragedy. I mean, it's safe to say with this assertion and other assertions, Facebook does not agree with your view of it.
I'm sure. It says that, you know, it, you know, the idea of promoting hate, that's just not what advertisers want. So why would they do that? It doesn't make sense for business and that they don't do that. And also with some of the issues, they recognize them and they're working on them. So what's interesting is we really need to understand that Facebook is not a single product, that Facebook in different parts of the world are very different experiences. Like when there's a multiple hundred page report from the UN that talks about how Facebook was used by the junta in Myanmar to inflame the genocide.
Like this is not a matter of contention. Like it's been very well documented. Facebook spun up war rooms in the lead up to Ethiopia 'cause they knew the roles that they were contributing to and they knew that was a risk factor. And yet they still see themselves, not as a publisher. Yes.
As a platform. You've sat there while someone from the Facebook oversight board, talking to me about that. Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Yeah.
I mean, I don't know if you think that board is fit for purpose, they said they were very interested to meet and talk with you. We've met with them. Do you think it's fit for purpose? So the oversight board is a beautiful illustration of how effective Facebook's communications department is because most people hear a name like Facebook Oversight Board and you're like, oh, there's an independent body that can ask questions about Facebook. They could ask is Facebook inflaming violence with algorithms. Turns out that's not even in their remit. That when you look at what they're actually responsible for, Facebook spent 120 million dollars endowing a board that can only look at content censorship decisions.
So it's not fit for purpose. It's not fit for purpose. And we need an oversight board that actually can do oversight on the company or we need something like the Digital Services Act. Which of course, you know, countries around the world are looking at different ways at this at the moment. I know you've been contributing to that. Do you think you've done anything that's made any changes though? What points towards that? So, Facebook has tried to expand coverage of its language classifiers.
So in the Fall they rolled out a different way of trying to run their censorship system so they could cover more languages, which was one of my core criticisms was that not enough safety systems existed. They were misleading the public about which safety systems existed in which languages. Facebook could have released parental controls for Instagram at any point in the last 10 years. People have been begging for even basic parental controls for 10 years.
They rolled out parental controls for the first time, maybe two months ago. And you directly think that's linked to what you- I think so. Took with you and showed? A number of major leaders on the Children's Rights Bill in the United States have said that the reason why their bill is moving forward is because of my disclosures. And I think pressure like that is part of why they have parental controls today.
I mean, because let's talk about, with particular reference, Facebook, of course, the parent owner of Instagram. I mean, what would you say to those individuals who talk about the role for better parenting, the role for autonomy, and looking after young people online, and that not necessarily the platform should be held responsible. So, I'll give you an example of how it works today. And I'll give you an example of something that's a really low hanging fruit that they could do that would put control in the hands of kids, put control in the hands of parents. Today, Facebook has run studies where they take a brand new account, blank account and they search for some pretty innocuous stuff like healthy eating, healthy recipes. 'Cause to be honest, we could all eat healthier and all they do is they click on the first five or 10 posts each day and they follow any hashtags they get suggested.
So there's no friends, there's no other interest, they're just clicking on it, it's just the algorithm. Within two or three weeks, you get sent to pro-anorexia content and pro-self harm content. So, that's how the algorithm works today.
They're pushing kids towards more extreme content. What could be happening is Facebook could start asking kids, they already take all the content on Instagram and make into clusters. So there's maybe 15,000 topics, a hundred thousand topics.
They could go and poll kids, they do things like this already and say, does this make your body image worse? Does this make your make you feel bad about yourself? And if they saw a child who was consuming a thousand, 2,000 pieces of content a day that were about topics that make kids depressed or make them have worse body image, they could ask that kid, do you wanna keep looking at this content? Or do you wanna see less of this content? Because children are saying today, I'm working with this therapist. I'm trying to make better decisions. And the content follows me around Instagram. Like I have to give up my friends to be safe. And I think that's like too high a bar.
But if my child was watching a thousand bits of content, 2000 bits of content, that takes quite a lot of time. I would hope I knew about that in some way. That might sound very naive. My child's pretty young at the moment, but there is also that role there, I suppose that some worry that by putting it all on the social media company, without perhaps even going against what you're saying here.
Yeah. That that role is being downplayed or ignored. So I think one way to look at is I think good parenting plays like a vital role, but one of the things we need to keep in mind and I lived with this experience when I was a teenager, you can feel confident about your parenting, but you need to ask the question, are the parents of every one of your kids' friends, are they being as attentive or is every kid, is every parent in your kid's school being that attentive. But I think it's an uphill fight.
'Cause these products are designed to be sticky, to be addictive 'cause they're more profitable that way. I suppose there's a difference between knowing something is bad and keeping going with it because it's good for business and thinking perhaps there isn't or aren't that many things you can do to change it. Which is it with Mark Zuckerberg? I think it's a question of, I think Mark struggles with so like I think he genuinely believes that Facebook is just a mirror, right? That, you know, there's always been bad things in the world. There've always been kids with eating disorders.
There've always been kids who have been bullied. You know, this is just a mirror and you're unhappy because you can see it now and he has trouble acknowledging his power or the power of these products. But you are saying he just sees it as a mirror rather than he knows it's doing harm. I think it's the thing that he tells himself a story that he's surrounded by advisors.
And they're not telling him either. And they're saying no, no, no. The world has always had bad things. Like you it's just a mirror. It sounds like a cult. It is a little, it definitely has some management issues.
If you were Mark Zuckerberg, do you think you should be able to sleep at night? I think he's really stressed. Right, like I think the fact that he has this vision, that we're all gonna live in the metaverse. Right, think about that a little bit, like the metaverse was a dystopian concept in the original novel, right? Like people's lives were so bad that they went into these virtual spaces. I bet it's really hard for Mark to go to a restaurant. Like, can you imagine people like looking over and glaring at you? Do you think that they do though? I think they do.
Like in, in Silicon Valley, people are not pro Facebook. I mean, you sound like you're sympathetic to him and yet at the same time you couldn't sleep because of what you knew and you didn't obviously know everything. I think hurt people hurt people. And I think Mark has been surrounded by people since he was 19 years old who told him he was doing a great job.
And so it's one of these things of, we can demonize Mark Zuckerberg, but it's not gonna make him heal faster. It's not gonna like when people feel attacked. But he has the power. He does have the power. So that's not the issue.
He's the only one who has the power because the voting structure of Facebook is different than most corporations in that he holds 56% of the votes for the company. No one, but Mark Zuckerberg can control Facebook right now. Do you think he should go? I don't think he, I don't think the company can recover as long as he is the leader of it. And I think the fact that he doubled down on the Metaverse when I brought up issues around genocide, like building, saying we have enough people, we have enough money, enough people to hire 10,000 people to build video games instead of actually making these systems safe.
I think that's a dereliction of duty. I mean, the company is at pains to mention 40,000 moderators and that, you know, they're spending a lot more on this, giving more attention to it. But of course, as you say, you mentioned the Metaverse, there's 10 billion, I believe to be spent on that. So, when my disclosures happened, they increased the spending from about two and a half, 2.6 billion per year to 5 billion a year, which is great. On moderation? On safety systems. Safety, okay.
And great, that's a step in the right direction, but did you know they bought back 75 billion dollars of stock in the 12 month period that's happening right now so that they have enough money lying around to light on fire $75 billion, but they could only spend $5 billion on safety. They have $10 billion to spend on video games, but they can't spend more on safety. You talked about, of course, what's been going on in different countries and the concerns that you had about lives on the line. But there have also been some cases I'm not gonna name names for reasons that you know, are obvious, we're talking about children here, but there have been examples of children in both the US, the UK, and I'm sure elsewhere in the world where they have taken their own lives and the parents blame, you know, Facebook, this company, you know, as part of that Instagram, they also blame some other social media platforms, I should say. But do you think of with that particular instance with regards to young people, do you think of Facebook as having blood on its hands? Yes, unquestionably.
Facebook's own documents say Instagram isn't just bad for teenagers, it's not just bad for children 'cause remember there's kids all the way down to eight and nine, like parents have told me, kids are using social media, using voice to text as young as eight and nine. That it's not just bad for them, it's actually worse than other forms of social media because TikTok is about performance. It's about humor. It's about doing things with your friends. Snapchat is about faces, about augmented reality. Reddit is at least nominally about ideas, right? But Instagram is about bodies and social comparison.
So you do see when those parents have said what they have said about their children. You buy what they're saying about the role of those companies, this company in particular. Unquestionably, like the one they broke my heart the most was there was a father of a child who died, who I got to meet with.
And he said, "I don't know what I "could have done differently. "I took his phone away. "Like, I saw that he was looking at this content. "I saw he was getting bullied. "I took his phone away and he ran away from home. "And when we looked for him, we couldn't find him anywhere.
"It wasn't any of his friend's houses. "And the reason was cause he fell asleep on a park bench "and he had hypothermia. "And so I gave him his phone back. Like I don't know what I could have done differently."
And that's what parents are facing. They feel powerless because these systems are designed to be sticky. They're not designed for children. They're designed for adults. It might seem a slightly old question. Would you ever go back there and try and improve it and work there? I still maintain, I still encourage people to work at Facebook because it is the most, we have to solve the problem of Facebook.
But you weren't sleeping when you worked at Facebook. I mean, I wouldn't feel like it sounds like a good job move for me if we were having a chat. I'm not having to hold those lies in anymore, right? But I suppose if you're saying to people go, you couldn't make the change while you were there. So, the way, the thing I always say to people is these systems are very complicated.
There are currently zero classes you can take anywhere in the world where you will learn how Facebook's algorithms work or the interconnection of how the algorithms work with the product choices. And we need good people to go into these companies and participate with their eyes open because the way the world learns. It sounds like they're going to 'cause they're not gonna sleep, yeah. I believe we will only get better social media if we engage in the process of building better social media. So if you were given the call, you would? I would go back. Had the call? I've never had the call.
I, they don't really acknowledge I exist. They'll definitely know your name. Just looking across the social media landscape, what do you make of it may not happen, but there's somebody like Elon Musk trying to take over Twitter and grapple with the free speech issue. He's also talked about reinstating, for instance, Donald Trump's account. What do you make of that? And what he's said so far about free speech, there's some who have expressed concerns about him, Elon Musk, as a person having this power. You know, I think it's so hard to read Elon's actions because he does so many, he, at this, at one point at the same time, he is able to land rockets on the moon.
Upright, yep. Upright, land them up and down, all those things. So, he must be good at asking hard questions and accepting hard answers. 'Cause if you're in denial on the level of Mark Zuckerberg, there's no way you're going to the moon. Okay. But he also does all these wacky things on the internet.
And so it's this question of like, which is the real Elon? And so part of the reason why I'm cautiously optimistic, I don't know, is I think once he gets inside the company and he can see all the data and he can talk to the people and get a more robust picture, I would hope that he would, you know, there's a lot of the things that I'm recommending are around, looking at behavior over content. Because when we look at things like saying, you know, should you have to click a link to reshare it? How long should you have to have that link open? Clicking on a link before you reshare it reduces misinformation by 10 or 15%. These are interventions that work in every language in the world.
And so I'm cautiously optimistic based on who his advisors are, that there would be an opportunity to do many of these things. And part of why they haven't been done to date is they cut off little slices of profit. And so, I think there's opportunities to explore solutions that weren't possible when it was a public company. But you know, time will tell.
Have you made friends with other whistle blowers? Do you know some? I do know some other whistleblowers. Is there a community of you? They are very friendly. I wouldn't say that we have that we have, there might be an active community, but I've talked to a handful of them on an ongoing way.
I wonder if there's a kind of, you know, sometimes when you take a leap. Yeah. Someone else who's taken a leap before kind of steps in and says, I know what you're going through. And you might wanna think about this, this and this. What's so interesting is there's one whistleblower who I've talked to, who has really, who took a very different path than me.
And they went it very alone, right? Like they, they have never accepted any kind of support or assistance. And like I very early on got, or started working with a whistle blowing lawyer and they, whistleblower aid throughout the United States. And they were incredibly beneficial in terms of educating me on like, you think you have made some choices, but let me tell you about the consequences of those choices, right? Like, I had always intended not to come out, right? Like, that's part of why the disclosures are so large is that I wanted them to stand on their own. And because they were able to take time and like talk me through consequences, they were like, your identity is gonna be the juiciest story in the world.
Like, and Facebook knows who you are. Like they know who pulled the doc, like which documents and whatever. I'm sure they know who you are. And so I talked to this other person who had not gotten the same amount of handholding. And it's just so interesting.
You know, every whistleblower is different. And the thing I would encourage whistleblowers is like, always ask for help. People wanna help you. And you don't have to be public.
I did wanna ask how you relax when you're not blowing whistles and keeping data and then sharing it and trying to tell the world what you are concerned about, what's keeping you awake. You mentioned cycling. Is that the main or what else do you like to do? I love the ocean. And so I have not, I don't have my bike set up, but the ocean is beautiful and we have snorkel equipment and there's sea turtles. Is that not the most wonderful thing? And you can just lay there in the water and like follow a sea turtle and you're like, nothing else matters.
So I'm very lucky. That's a beautiful image to paint. I mean I'm sure you've shared some photos of it on Instagram. My Instagram's only like the pictures of me meeting people. I'm not very good at, ironically, I'm not very good at Instagram, so. There you go.
That's the scoop. Frances, thank you very much for talking to me. My pleasure, good to be here It's been really fascinating and thank you so much for being with us.
Until we meet again, do take care and goodbye.