Frances Haugen is 37, a data analyst, originally from Iowa, with a degree in computer engineering, a Harvard masters in business, years of experience in various tech companies, from Google, to Pinterest, Yelp, and finally Facebook. Flawless suit and makeup under a helmet of blond hair, when she appeared last night on American TV CBS , interviewed by the “60 Minutes” program, she gave a face to the source of the latest, explosive revelations on Facebook and Instagram that have appeared in the press in recent weeks USA.
In fact, she is the whistleblower , the secret informant, who has collected tens of thousands of pages of internal documents and revealed them to the Wall Street Journal , under guarantee of anonymity, to explain to the world the distortions of the most widespread social network on the planet. In recent days, the Facebook Files investigation revealed how Facebook benefits the most powerful users and politicians in moderating their content; how the platform executives have been ” shielded” from complaints previous years’ scandal , starting with Cambridge Analytica; and above all how Facebook’s internal research had raised strong alarms about the effects that Instagram can have on the psyche of very young people and in particular of girls.
The testimony before the US Congress
In front of the cameras, interviewed by Scott Pelley , she clearly demonstrated the reasons why – data in hand – Facebook has set in motion a mechanism of disinformation, polarization of public opinion and negative influence on young people. And why there is a need for some form of regulation towards companies Mark Zuckerberg’s . Tomorrow he will testify at the US Congress, in a few weeks he will also speak in front of the British Parliament and says he is in contact with French parliamentarians and with the European Parliament.
“What I’ve seen Facebook repeat over and over is the conflict of interest between what’s good for the public and what’s good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over, has made choices based on its interests, such as to make more money “. In short, Facebook “has favored growth over security”.
After all, it was precisely this risk that pushed Haugen herself to join the platform in 2019. She had lost a loved one “due to conspiracy theories”, she said, and had accepted Facebook’s job offer only if could have worked to combat the spread of disinformation. “I wanted no one to feel the pain that I had suffered. And I understood how important it was to ensure that good quality information circulated on Facebook.” He had started working at Menlo Park in the “Civic Integrity” group dedicated to tackling dangerous content for elections. But immediately after the 2020 presidential elections, the group was disbanded. “In fact they said: we passed the elections, there were no riots. Now we can get rid of Civic Integrity.” A few weeks later, crowds of pro supporters Donald Trump stormed the Washington Congress. At that moment, Haugan recalls, it was clear to her that the company “didn’t really intend to invest to prevent Facebook from becoming dangerous.”
Anger generates money
The very way in which Facebook’s algorithms are designed – and this is not a real novelty – aims to favor divisive, angry, polarizing content. “Facebook’s mission is to connect people around the world,” says Haugen. “When you know that a system can be manipulated by anger, it is easier to provoke anger in people. So the editors said: oh, if I create more divisive content, I make more money. Facebook has put up an incentive system. which is driving people away “. In particular, says the woman, the algorithm change carried out in 2018 to promote “what she calls significant social interactions” through a classification of contents based on engagement , that is the number of times you click, comment, share a certain Content: The higher it is, the more the content is promoted on the platform.
“One of the most shocking pieces of information I took out of Facebook is what the political parties were saying – reported in Facebook searches – that is, the fact that they were aware that Facebook had changed the way content was selected. And they said: now if we don’t post angry, hateful, divisive content, we’re screwed. We get nothing. We don’t like it, and our constituents don’t like it either. But we have to save our jobs. And if we don’t make such a fuss. we are not distributed (on Facebook). And so now we have to do a lot of things like that, because it has become our job. And if we don’t generate traffic and engagement, we lose our jobs. ” Not only are hate content more profitable, but implementing security and monitoring measures on the platform costs a lot, especially when – as Facebook expands to users of languages other than English – these systems need to be designed and implemented. in different languages: the economic return is simply not sufficient to justify the effort and therefore in “marginal” areas of the world the platform is practically left to itself.
These are not completely unpublished revelations, but the strength of Haugen’s testimony lies in the fact that the woman documents everything. And not necessarily out of revenge or anger. At least according to her, she still has faith that the platform can improve, and has respect and affection for many of those who work on it. “I believe we can do better,” he tweeted. “Together we can create a social media that brings out the best in us. Problems are solved together, we can’t do it alone.”
Both the Twitter account and the site created by Haugan are part of a strategy that has been carefully studied in recent months. Haugen worked at Facebook for two years, until he decided to leave his own despair at the lack of attention that the company’s top management reserved for the repeated signals of concern from many analysts and employees of Facebook, and the way in which proposals to improve the mechanisms of the platform were constantly ignored or set aside. Just before leaving the offices and exiting the internal system, he copied tens of thousands of documents, some of which, while highly sensitive, had been left without major precautions on the company’s employee chat.
Code name “Sean”
He then contacted the legal team of Whistleblower Aid, a non-profit group that defends those who decide to disclose confidential information for reasons of public interest. With their advice and under the code name of “Sean” he planned his leak , which was conducted through both the media and by contacting members of Congress, as well as a series of substantiated complaints to the Security and Exchange Commission, the federal body that protects investors. With its public statements, Haugan argues, Facebook has repeatedly misled those who invested in the company.
For now, Facebook is not responding in detail to the accusations. On Friday, in anticipation of the interview CBS , the vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg , distributed an internal memo in which he anticipated what the woman would say and calling the accusations “misleading”. Then he went to CNN to reiterate that Facebook reflects “the beautiful, the ugly and the horrendous of humanity” and that it is committed to “mitigating the ugly, reducing it and amplifying the beautiful”. As for the violence in the US Congress last January, self-defense is also an attack on politics: “I think we want to give false reassurances to the public that there are technical or technological explanations for the problem of political polarization in the United States. “.