A former Facebook product manager revealed herself as the whistleblower who leaked a trove of company research, plunging the social media giant into crisis, and filed a series of complaints with federal regulators.
Frances Haugen, who appeared Sunday night on 60 Minutes, said she was so appalled by the company’s behavior she copied a mountain of internal documents to make sure misdeeds could not be buried.
“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she told host Scott Pelley.
“And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
Haugen, 37, had worked for other major tech firms like Google and Pinterest. But Facebook was in a class of its own, she said.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” she said.
Haugen added that she’d initially joined the company in mid-2019 on the condition that she could work on combating misinformation. She had lost a friend down a white nationalism rabbit hole through social media and wanted to help change things.
“It’s one thing to study misinformation, it’s another to lose someone to it,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “A lot of people who work on these products only see the positive side of things.”
She was assigned to their Civic Integrity team, made up of about 200 people. The team was disbanded in December 2020, shortly after the presidential election had concluded.
“When they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I was like, ‘I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous,’” Haugen told 60 Minutes.
After secretly copying reams of internal documents from Facebook’s servers, Haugen, who quit Facebook in May, became the primary source for The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series.
The Journal would go on to publish a series of 10 articles based on the thousands of documents she provided them. The evidence alleged, among other things, that Facebook was actively deceiving its investors and the public about its success in curtailing hate and misinformation on the platform.
Documents also showed that employees had been warning their supervisors about violent usage of the platform by human traffickers in the Middle East and armed militant groups in Ethiopia. The company took little or no action.
“The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world,” Haugen said.
Another story in the series reported that Facebook has known for years, based on internal research, that Instagram actively harms teenage girls, and has done nothing to fix the issue.
“Facebook’s own research says it is not just that Instagram is dangerous for teenagers...” Haugen told Pelley. “It’s that it is distinctly worse than other forms of social media.”
More than anyone else, Haugen said, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bears responsibility for putting Facebook’s all-important algorithm above the common good, she said.
“I have a lot of empathy for Mark, and Mark has never set out to make a hateful platform,” Haugen explained in Sunday night’s interview. “But he has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful, polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach.”
She worried her colleagues would feel she had betrayed them. Before Haugen left Facebook, her final message on the company’s internal social network, which she typed into the search bar, read: “I don’t hate Facebook. I love Facebook. I want to save it.”
She is now scheduled to testify before the Senate on Tuesday morning, in a hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower.”
And in what could be the most damaging blow to Facebook, Haugen’s lawyers filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission suggesting that it misled investors about what it was doing to combat misinformation, hate, and other problematic content on the site.
Though some have raised concerns that Haugen could be in danger of company retaliation, her lawyer, John Tye, dismissed that during the 60 Minutes segment.
“The Dodd-Frank Act, passed over 10 years ago at this point, created an Office of the Whistleblower inside the SEC,” Tye, known as the founder of Washington legal group Whistleblower Aid, said. That office will protect Haugen as she continues to communicate and share documents with the agency, he said.
In a statement to 60 Minutes, Facebook said: “We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true."
A website unveiled by Haugen says she is the Iowa-born daughter of two professors and has an MBA from Harvard. “We can have social media we enjoy that brings out the best in humanity,” it reads.
Haugen has said she would like to cooperate with state attorneys general, as well as European regulators. She will push for the company to make its research more transparent, simplify its systems, and limit the promotion of content based solely on emotional user engagement.
“During her time at Facebook, Frances became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety—putting people’s lives at risk,” her site says. “As a last resort and at great personal risk, Frances made the courageous act to blow the whistle on Facebook.”