The ground was trembling at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, in mid-September 2021. For several days, The Wall Street Journal had been publishing the Facebook Files, a journalistic investigation based on the company’s internal documents which showed that executives were aware of the damage that Instagram and Facebook caused to young people. It also showed that the company was responsible for disseminating fake news and content that incited violence.
A month later, in October, the world put a face to the person responsible for the leak. Engineer Frances Haugen, 39, decided to reveal her identity. In a TV interview, she explained that she had left her position at Facebook with 21,000 internal documents under her arm. The U.S. Senate called her to testify and investigations were launched into her revelations about Meta, the new name Mark Zuckerberg gave to his social media company just weeks after the leak. It didn’t take long for the first lawsuits to arrive, with the parents of teenagers who had suffered mental disorders, eating disorders, or who had even taken their own lives, suing the company. Many of these complaints ended up being part of the class action lawsuit filed in March by hundreds of individuals and dozens of educational institutions against various social networks. The peak of this wave of lawsuits came last week, when attorneys general from 41 states sued Meta for harming children with its products and failing to report those dangers.
Haugen does not hide her emotion about what happened. “It’s a truly historic moment,” she tells EL PAÍS, smiling, via videoconference. Since leaving Facebook, she has given conferences around the world and has founded an NGO called Beyond the Screen, which aims to make social networks more transparent.
Question. What did you feel last Tuesday when the lawsuit was filed?
Answer. In the United States, there is not much consensus between Democrats and Republicans. Forty-one states coming together and demanding accountability is a really big deal because it shows that the evidence is in. And it shows that they have solid evidence against it, otherwise they would not take that step. This is not a case about Facebook hurting kids. It’s a case about Facebook hurting kids and lying about it. The cover-up is often worse than the crime. Some say that Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which exempts platforms, with few exceptions, from liability for content posted on them by third parties] means that these companies can do whatever they want. I don’t know if that’s totally true. But what I do know is that consumer protection laws say you can’t describe your product one way when you know it’s different. One of the amazing things that will happen in the coming weeks is that we will get the unredacted version of the lawsuit. That is going to change everything, because I’m sure the redacted parts are quotes from subpoena documents. As soon as we can see what Facebook’s own documents said in detail about mental health with kids, I think it will really profoundly change the conversation around social media and children.
Q. Are there more whistleblowers in this case?
A. Well, other people are cited in the lawsuit with their names covered. So we know that there are other people who talk about Facebook. We also know that the lawsuit is based on documents that were not mine. I only brought to light a handful of documents about children; my main focus was linguistic equity. There are hundreds of millions of Spanish speakers around the world. Facebook doesn’t invest anywhere as much in the safety of keeping the Spanish language version of Facebook safe as it does English. I revealed 30 or 40 documents on kids. What happens when instead of 30 or 40 we get to look at 1,000 or 4,000? I am so excited to see what the world is going to learn from looking through this case.
Q. Have you cooperated with any of the attorneys general who filed the lawsuit?
A. No comment.
Q. Do you know or have you dealt with any of the whistleblowers who have leaked the documents to build the case?
A. I can’t comment on that either, sorry.
P. How do you expect this process to finish?
A. That’s a great question. I think it’s hard to imagine how much the world has changed in the last week. Teenagers have an incredibly attuned sense of injustice, and they really don’t like being taken advantage of. The redacted lawsuit makes it very clear that Facebook was not prioritizing the well-being of children. So, even if the trial doesn’t go well, this document is going to change everything. Now we know what social media has done to children. Something will happen, even if it’s just consumers walking away or advertisers walking away.
Q. When you decided to leave Facebook and leak the company’s internal documents, was your goal to get to the point we are at now? What did you imagine would happen?
A. I had incredibly low expectations when I came forward. My primary motivation was to be able to sleep at night. I knew that I was no longer responsible for what was being done, that I was no longer part of the problem. Everything that’s happened since then is just gravy. Like the fact that this lawsuit happened. I have always believed that litigation was the only way for us to move forward. This is what happened with tobacco and opioids. I am a Quaker, I really believe truth changes the world.
Q. What do you expect from the class action lawsuit filed in March by school districts?
A. I find it very interesting. And more and more school districts are joining. I had no clue how much social media has disrupted schools until I started doing this advocacy work. I spoke with school principals and they say things like what students spend the most time doing is social media. The principal of my own school told me that the boys had set up a fight club: there’s an anonymous Instagram account and kids go pick fights and film them and put the film up on this account. It’s profoundly disturbing. There are schools in the U.S. where they have to confiscate all the kids’ cellphones because they cannot teach those kids if they are on social media during school hours.
This is not a case about Facebook hurting kids. It’s a case about Facebook hurting kids and lying about it
Q. Have you received threats since you left Facebook?
A. No. I have open DMs on Twitter and my email addresses on my website and I never get harassed. On Facebook, it is as if I don’t exist. I’m like Voldemort. I’m a person whose name cannot be said. I feel very, very fortunate. I think if I had gone after Twitter, things would be different. Elon Musk has a lot of fanboys who probably would have harassed me. But very few people root for Mark Zuckerberg. I think it’s quite sad, he’s very, very alone.
Q. Have you met Zuckerberg since you left Facebook?
Q. Would you like to be able to talk to him?
A. I would because I feel like I’m the only person in the world who believes he can do much better. I’ve joked that if I get to write another book [she published her memoirs in May] one day, my dedication will be the following: ”I want to dedicate it to Mark Zuckerberg. I have complete faith that you are destined for greatness, and I will not stop pushing until you achieve it.” He needs to step down and do his next thing. He has infinite money, he’s a young man, 39... Imagine what he could do. He could outbuild Bill Gates, he’s got the time [it has always been said that Zuckerberg envies the concept that people have of the founder of Microsoft]. And yet he’s stuck in this prison he built for himself. I think he’s scared and alone. I’d love to give him a pep talk. Tell him: you can do more, keep going and achieve your destiny.
Q. When did you realize you had to leave Facebook?
A. When I became part of a team called Civic Integrity. It was the department that was created after the 2016 election [data from 87 million Facebook users collected by Cambridge Analytica could have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory] to ensure that Facebook was a positive force in the world. Well, they dissolved it less than 30 days after the 2020 elections. There was no one to say: January 6 [the day when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol] is coming, we ‘ve got to put up a war room. Seeing that, it seemed clear to me that the company could not heal on its own. It needed help from the public. That’s when I thought I have to do something.
Q. What do you think about TikTok, the fastest-growing social network among young people? Is it as dangerous as Meta?
A. It has very similar problems. TikTok is designed to be moderated. The reason they generate such viral content is that they want a small number of videos that make up 80% or 90% of what everyone sees. The problem with a system like that is that if you don’t have enough moderating staff it is super dangerous. The bias or discrimination that the algorithm can cause is even more pronounced. When I left Facebook, I thought we had five years before TikTok caused violence. And, last year, during the elections in Kenya, we saw the first cases of violence caused by TikTok. I spoke to someone internal to the company and they said when the election violence is going on, there were no Swahili speaking moderators. If you don’t choose to invest in languages, beyond a few, you are putting a really big danger out into the world. So, unquestionably, TikTok has similar problematic behaviors to Meta, we just don’t have evidence of it yet.
Q. Where do you think social networks will be in 10 years’ time?
A. I think we’re going to look back in 10 years and be shocked at what happened. We are already starting to see college sophomores giving testimonies about what they have seen social media cause. One thing that has surprised teachers and educators is that there are many kids who are angry for no apparent reason. There are also many who have classmates who have taken their own lives. We are going to have to face the fact that this generation is the most affected by social media, and they will let us know the consequences it has had on them. When we look back in 10 years, we will wonder why we couldn’t move faster on regulation.
Q. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A. I hope I will be unnecessary. I hope that by then we will have sensible laws that give access to the data on these platforms, that we will have a robust democratic system that doesn’t need a Frances Haugen in order to function.
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