How ‘losing friend to misinformation’ drove Facebook whistleblower

Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind a series of damaging revelations about Facebook, is adamant that she wants to help the social media company and not foment hatred of it.

The 37-year-old leaked tens of thousands of internal company documents after becoming frustrated that Facebook was not publicly acknowledging the harm its platforms could cause.

“If people just hate Facebook more because of what I’ve done, then I’ve failed. I believe in truth and reconciliation – we need to admit reality. The first step of that is documentation,” she told the Wall Street Journal, which revealed the documents in its Facebook Files series.

In her final message on Facebook’s internal system, posted when she left in May, she wrote: “I don’t hate Facebook. I love Facebook. I want to save it.”

Haugen, born and raised in Iowa by a doctor father and a mother who gave up an academic career to become an episcopalian priest, said it was a lost friendship that changed her view of social media.

Haugen was a successful tech professional with a CV that included stints at Pinterest and Google but a decade ago she was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, and in 2014 entered an intensive care unit with a blood clot in her thigh. A family friend was hired to help her with daily tasks such as shopping but their relationship deteriorated as he became obsessed with online forums touting conspiracy theories about dark forces manipulating politics.

“It was a really important friendship, and then I lost him,” she told the WSJ. The former friend has since abandoned his conspiratorial beliefs, which had dragged him into a world of the occult and white nationalism. But it changed Haugen’s career.

“It’s one thing to study misinformation, it’s another to lose someone to it,” she said. “A lot of people who work on these products only see the positive side of things.”

So when a Facebook recruiter approached Haugen in 2018, she said she wanted a job that related to democracy and the spread of false information. That led to a role in 2019 as a product manager in Facebook’s civic integrity team, which looks at election interference around the world.

The group was disbanded after the 2020 US presidential poll and Haugen contacted the WSJ soon after, her dismay deepening after the 6 January riot in Washington. Facebook has said it “invested heavily” in people and technology to make its platform safe, but Haugen believed the company was not doing enough to combat misinformation.

“Facebook acted like it was powerless to staff these teams,” she said.

Reacting to Haugen’s comment, Facebook said: “Hosting hateful or harmful content is bad for our community, bad for advertisers, and ultimately, bad for our business.” On Tuesday, Haugen will appear in front of US lawmakers to reiterate her argument that Facebook did not do enough to stop the hate and harm.

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