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Who is Frances Haugen? Facebook product manager turned whistle-blower

Former social media employee says she developed interest in civic responsibility as a child

Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen is giving evidence to MPs and peers today as pressure grows for a legislative crackdown on the social network.

The 37-year-old has “triggered a deep crisis at Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire” by going public with tens of thousands of internal documents “detailing the company’s failure to keep its users safe from harmful content”, said The Guardian.

This afternoon, she will testify in front of a joint committee of representatives from the Commons and Lords set up to scrutinise the UK’s Draft Online Safety Bill, a proposed law that would place a duty of care on social media companies to protect users.

Big ambitions

Haugen has always “showed a strong curiosity about her world” and “excelled as a student growing up in Iowa City”, reported her hometown newspaper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

According to her website, she attended the Iowa caucuses with her parents, “instilling a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation”.

At the age of eight, she wrote to her local congressman to protest against plans to widen a neighbourhood road. “Please don't let them turn Melrose Avenue into a four-lane road,” she wrote. “I couldn’t walk home from school because I have to cross Melrose. Sincerely yours Frances Haugen.”

She was frequently mentioned in the Iowa City Press-Citizen as a child, participating in debate, geography and engineering competitions. In April 1997, Haugen told a local reporter that when she grew up she wanted to be either “a biologist, and grow food to feed the world”, or “a lawyer and then become a politician”.

She later studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College of Engineering and an MBA at Harvard Business School.

Real-life motivations

In 2006, Haugen arrived in Silicon Valley, a “rare female software engineer with a fast-expanding resume” that included stints at Google, Yelp and Pinterest, reported the Financial Times (FT). And her decision to take a break to study for an MBA “marked her out as future senior management material”.

Haugen told The Washington Post that some of her concerns about Facebook’s alleged role in fomenting violence abroad “were informed by five weeks she spent in Africa in 2010 and 2011”.

She has also spoken about having firsthand experience of seeing the effects of online radicalisation. After suffering a blood clot in 2014 and being forced to use a wheelchair, she hired an assistant, who she claims later succumbed to conspiracies on the internet about US billionaire investor George Soros. 

“It pushed him to a place where he believed George Soros was running the world economy, and nothing I could do could pull him back from that ledge,” Haugen said.

Haugen joined Facebook in 2019, as part of the company’s civic integrity team, where she said she worked on issues related to democracy and misinformation.

Tech whistle-blower

Haugen quit Facebook in May, after the company disbanded the civic integrity team. Disillusioned by what she had seen, she started to speak out, and leaked thousands of pages of internal documents before revealing her identity earlier this month.

Haugen has since told senators in Washington that Facebook put “astronomical profits before people”. The firm knew that its Instagram photo-sharing app was damaging the mental health of teenagers, she claimed, and that its Facebook platform was being used to incite ethnic violence in Ethiopia. In the wake of her allegations, a senator said that the social media company was facing its “big tobacco moment”.

Facebook has disputed Haugen’s version of events and “has painted her as a low-level employee speaking about subjects on which she lacks direct knowledge”, said The Washington Post. But so far, she has “withstood that challenge” through careful planning and deep research.

“A believer in the power of data to tell a story, Haugen saw an opportunity to turn Facebook’s biggest weapon – its ability to collect and measure the human experience – against it,” the paper continued.

She joins a long list of tech industry whistle-blowers who have exposed Silicon Valley secrets, but Haugen “stands out for her methodical planning and the rigour with which she has built her case”.

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