Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has a new mission

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

Could Haugen arrive in Washington in four days, Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed asked. She had been chosen to be the first lady’s guest in the next State of the Union.

“It was actually slightly disruptive,” recalls Haugen, who lives in Puerto Rico. “But, you know, the kind of interruption you don’t mind.”

It was only in October, during an interview with “60 Minutes”, that Haugen for the first time he identified himself publicly as the whistleblower responsible for disclosing thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to Congress, the Wall Street Journal, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

These revelations, which were subsequently made available to many other newspapers, including The Times – transformed the former Facebook product manager in the face of a long backlash against Facebook, his sister app Instagram and the social media industry wrote big. By advertising files showing that Facebook (which has since had changed name to Meta Platforms) was internally aware of a wide variety of issues with its products, including the effect they can have On the mental health of teens, Haugen offered the company’s critics something that looked a lot like a smoking gun.

The transition to a public figure was unlikely for Haugen. “I don’t want attention,” she told the Times. “I fled the first time I got married. I organized two birthday parties in like 20s “.

But now, his profile has been boosted a presidential cry in the state of the union address, Haugen is making the most of his new soap box. That means giving your weight to efforts to solve the same problems he helped expose, including in California.

At the heart of his efforts is a bill that is making its way through the state assembly. Dubbed the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, it would require web platforms that children could use to put in place data privacy measures how to make user settings high privacy by default, describe privacy policies in a language that children can understand, and prohibit children’s personal information from being used for purposes other than the purpose for which it was initially collected.

“I don’t want to take too much credit [the bill] because I didn’t play a part in drafting it, ”Haugen said. “But I’m a strong believer that we need to start extending the same standards we have for children’s physical toys to virtual space because right now there are some pretty crazy consequences that are happening because these products aren’t designed for kids.”

Haugen did a question and answer session for state legislators in Sacramento a few weeks ago – “I’m very willing to help answer questions for anyone who wants to understand more about what the impacts are. [of] algorithms are ”- and he also spoke at the Summit of Mom 2.0, a Los Angeles gathering for parent-focused influencers in late April.

That Haugen is largely focused on how social media affects younger users is no coincidence. Although his revelations highlight a wide variety of Internet problems – disinformation, radicalization and human trafficking – it was the content about children and adolescents that seems to have moved lawmakers the most.

Notably, internal Facebook research that Haugen helped make public showed that nearly one-third of teen girls interviewed by the company said this “When they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Facebook has historically downplayed its mental health effect on young users, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

The company said after the leak that its research was misrepresented, but the revelation nevertheless ignited congressional hearings and, although the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act was independently developed by Haugen, it raised the stakes of the California bill.

“Frances has brought tremendous public awareness to this cause, especially the issue of children,” Assemblyman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who is co-sponsor of the Design Code Act. “I am grateful she came to Sacramento last month to speak with lawmakers and advocates and that she continues to lend her voice and experience to explain why policies like the code are needed to keep children safe online.” .

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

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

“The solutions to many of the problems outlined in my revelations are actually quite complicated,” he said. “When it comes to children, it’s really simple.”

The effect of social media on children has become such a burning issue that now a second bill with a similar goal is also going through the Assembly: the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, which would allow parents sue social media companies for designing compelling software. Haugen said he was unaware of the bill, but co-sponsor Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles) told the Times in March that his leaks were a catalyst. (A representative from Cunningham said the assembly member did not work or speak directly with Haugen. Wicks, the Oakland Democrat, is also a co-sponsor of the Duty to Children Act.)

A prominent place in Haugen’s defense was Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that analyze the effect media and technology have on young people and Jim Steyer, its founder and CEO. Common Sense Media asked Haugen if he would help her support the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, the whistleblower said, and she said yes.

“Frances has proved to be an excellent partner for us because she … does a great job of explaining how technology platforms work, some of the harms involved and why we need important laws and regulations,” said Steyer, the brother 2020 presidential candidate and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.

His organization has been working with Haugen for about five months, Steyer said, after their legal team came up with the idea of ​​partnering: “We started planning ways we could work on federal legislation, as well as California legislation. , and also on the mobilization of young people. ” (The wicks worked at Common Sense Media.)

The organization also partnered with the White House to bring Haugen to the State of the Union, Steyer said.

Haugen’s influence extends beyond the west coast. He estimates that he spent about five and a half weeks in Europe working to support a fundamental law of the European Union – the Digital Services Act – which would force social media platforms, including Facebook, to more aggressively moderate hate speech, disinformation and other user-generated content, as well as ban online ads targeting children. Both the European Parliament and the Member States of the European Union have agree the content of the DSA, although it is still subject to formal approval.

“Until the passage of the DSA, that was the main goal, to provide support to gain awareness,” said Haugen. He was on the ground “assisting lawmakers, testifying, meeting various ministries [and] meeting with other groups of civil society ”, and also he wrote a New York Times opinion piece in support of the law.

She has also been involved in environmental, social and governance or ESG efforts to help investors “have criteria on how to assess whether or not social media companies are acting prosocially,” she said, and is working on founding a nonprofit organization that will combine this work with litigation support and educational efforts to teach people about social media. Steyer said her organization helped Haugen “incubate” her nonprofit organization.

It is a meteoric rise for those who, less than a year ago, did not have a national profile.

“When I disclosed the documents to the SEC and Congress, I had no expectations of what would happen,” Haugen said. “My main goal was that I didn’t want to carry the burden for the rest of my life of knowing something and doing nothing.”

But despite everything that has happened since she first appeared in the public eye – phone calls to the White House, trips to Europe, rubbing shoulders with California political heavyweights – Haugen said the main difference she has experienced in recent months it was the weight that was lifted from her shoulders.

“The biggest thing that has changed in my life,” he said, “is that I can sleep at night.”