Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen has a new mission

Frances Haugen was cooking dinner one Friday night when her phone rang. At the other end of the line was the White House.

Will Haugen be able to get to Washington in four days, Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reid asked. She has been selected as the First Lady’s guest at the upcoming State of the Union event.

“It was actually a bit devastating,” recalls Haugen, who lives in Puerto Rico. “But, you know – the sight of a breakdown doesn’t mind you.”

Only in October during an interview with “60 Minutes” Haugen for the first time publicly identified herself as the whistleblower responsible for leaking thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to Congress, the Wall Street Journal, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

These disclosures, which were subsequently made available to many other news outlets, including The Times – turned a former Facebook product manager into the face of a long overdue backlash against Facebook, its sister app Instagram, and the social media industry in general. By posting files demonstrating that Facebook (which has since changed its name to Meta Platforms) was aware of a large number of problems with its products, including in effect they can have When it comes to teen mental health, Haugen offered the company’s critics what looked a lot like a smoking gun.

A transition to a public figure was unlikely for Haugen. “I don’t crave attention,” she told The Times. “I ran away when I first got married. I’ve had two birthday parties in about 20 years.”

But now her profile has increased by presidential greeting in his State of the Union address, Haugen makes the most of his new soap dish. That means she’s supporting efforts to address the same issues she helped bring to light, including in California.

Central to her efforts is a bill passing through the State Assembly. Called California’s Age Appropriate Design Code Act, its implementation will require web platforms that children are most likely to use. data privacy measures for example, setting high privacy user preferences by default, describing privacy policies in language that children can understand, and not using children’s personal information for any purpose other than the purpose for which it was originally collected.

“I don’t want to take too much credit for myself. [the bill] because I did not take part in its compilation,” Haugen said. “But I strongly support the idea that we need to start extending the same standards that we have for physical toys for kids to the virtual space because there are some pretty insane consequences going on right now because these products are not meant for kids. . ”

Haugen did Q&A session to state legislators in Sacramento a few weeks ago: “I’m very eager to help answer questions for anyone who wants to know more about the impact [of] algorithms,” and also spoke at the Mom 2.0 Summit, a gathering of parenting-focused influencers in Los Angeles in late April.

That Haugen is mainly focused on how social media affects their youngest users is no coincidence. While her revelations shed light on a wide range of Internet issues — misinformation, radicalization and human trafficking — the stories about children and teens have touched lawmakers the most.

Specifically, an internal Facebook study that Haugen helped make public found that almost a third of the teenage girls surveyed by the company said that “When they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel even worse.” Facebook has historically downplayed its impact on the mental health of young users, writes the Wall Street Journal. informed at that time.

After the leak, the company claimed that its research had been misrepresented, but the discovery caused an uproar nonetheless. congressman hearings and, while the Age Appropriate Design Code Act was drafted independently of Haugen, it upped the stakes of California’s bill.

“Frances has brought a lot of public attention to this case, especially to the issue of children,” Assemblyman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who is the author of the Design Codes Act, said in an emailed statement. “I’m grateful that she came to Sacramento last month to speak with legislators and attorneys and that she continues to share her insights and experiences in explaining why rules like the code are necessary to keep kids safe online.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Haugen said she’s not surprised that this part of her leaks generated so much interest.

“Solutions to many of the problems outlined in my revelations are actually quite complex,” she said. “When it comes to kids, it’s very simple.”

The impact of social media on children has become such a hot topic that a second bill with a similar focus is also now going through the Assembly: The Social Media Platform Responsibilities to Children Act, which will allow parents to sue social media to develop addictive software. Haugen said she was unaware of the bill, but co-sponsor Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles) told The Times in March that her leaks were the catalyst for its passage. (A Cunningham spokesman said the Assemblyman did not work or speak directly to Haugen. Weekes, an Oakland Democrat, also co-sponsored the Duty to Children Act.)

Prominent in Haugen’s advocacy is Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that analyzes the effect the media and technology are affecting young people, as well as Jim Steyer, its founder and CEO. According to the whistleblower, Common Sense Media asked Haugen if she would help support the Age Appropriate Design Code Act, and she said yes.

“Francis has been a great partner for us because she…is great at explaining how technology platforms work, what harm they can do, and why we need strong legislation and regulation,” Steyer said. brother 2020 presidential candidate and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.

Steyer said his organization has been working with Haugen for about five months after her legal team approached her to collaborate. young people. …” (Weeks worked for Common Sense Media.)

The organization also worked with the White House to get Haugen on the Union staff, Steyer said.

Haugen’s influence extends beyond the West Coast. She estimated that she spent about five and a half weeks in Europe working in support of landmark law of the European Union – The Digital Services Act, which would require social media platforms, including Facebook, to more aggressively curb hate speech, misinformation, and other user-generated content, and ban online advertising targeted at children. Both the European Parliament and the Member States of the European Union agreed on content of the DSA, although it is still subject to formal approval.

“Until the DSA was passed, it was sort of the main focus of providing support for raising awareness,” Haugen said. She was on site, “supporting legislators, testifying, meeting with various ministries. [and] meetings with other civil society groups”, and wrote New York Times article supporting the law.

She has also been involved in the Environmental, Social and Governance Projects, or ESG, an effort to help investors “have criteria for assessing whether social media companies are acting pro-socially,” she said, and is working to start a non-profit organization. this will combine this work with litigation support as well as educational efforts to educate people on social media. Steyer said his organization helped Haugen “grow” her nonprofit.

This is a meteoric rise for a man who, less than a year ago, had no national authority.

“When I presented the papers to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress, I didn’t expect what would happen,” Haugen said. “My main goal was that I didn’t want to carry the burden for the rest of my life that I knew something and didn’t do anything.”

But despite everything that’s happened since she’s been in public — phone calls to the White House, trips to Europe, interactions with California’s political heavyweights — Hougen said the main difference she’s experienced over the past few months is — it is a weight that has been lifted from her shoulders. .

“The biggest change in my life,” she said, “is that I can sleep at night.”