Facebook whistleblower: Who is Frances Haugen?

4 Oct 2021

Image: Frances Haugen

The former Facebook product manager was also one of the founders of an early iteration of popular dating app Hinge.

Over the past few weeks, the Wall Street Journal has been sharing internal Facebook research highlighting issues at the company in a project it calls the Facebook Files. And up until last night (3 October), no one knew the identity of the source.

In an interview with CBS 60 Minutes, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen revealed herself as the source of thousands of leaked company documents and claimed that profit outweighs public good at the world’s biggest social media platform.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she said in the TV interview. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.”

Haugen, who will testify before the US Congress tomorrow (5 October),  said that Facebook lied to the public and investors about the effectiveness of its campaigns to remove hate, violence and fake news from its platforms.

Who is Frances Haugen?

Haugen joined Facebook in June 2019 and worked as a product manager on the company’s civic misinformation team. Here, she dealt with issues surrounding democracy and elections, misinformation and counter-espionage.

She is a Silicon Valley veteran. Before Facebook, she held product management roles at Pinterest, Yelp and Google – where she specialised in ranking algorithms. Haugen was also co-founder and CTO of Secret Agent Cupid – the precursor to popular dating app Hinge.

Born in Iowa, she graduated with a degree in electrical and computer engineering from Olin College in Massachusetts and went on to do an MBA at Harvard University.

On her personal website, she said that while working at Facebook, she became “increasingly alarmed” by how it prioritised profits over public safety. She said she made the decision to blow the whistle on Facebook “as a last resort and at great personal risk”.

She added that she believes the problems with social media today are solvable. “We can have social media that brings out the best in humanity.”

Before revealing her identity and going public, Haugen got in touch with Whistleblower Aid, an organisation that helps whistleblowers expose wrongdoing with legal help and raises money for legal defence.

She has now been announced as a speaker at Web Summit’s conference in Lisbon this November. She will address around 40,000 expected in-person guests alongside other big names in tech and policy, including Margrethe Vestager and Brad Smith. Whistleblower Aid founder and CEO John Tye will also speak at the event.

“The work that Haugen and Whistleblower Aid have done in the last few weeks is critical, and we’re looking forward to hearing them speak on stage,” Web Summit co-founder and CEO Paddy Cosgrove said.

One of the Facebook Files articles that attracted significant attention claimed that Facebook had internal research that showed Instagram to be damaging to the mental health and wellbeing of teenage girls. Last week, Facebook revealed that it was suspending development of Instagram Kids – a version of the social media app for 10 to 12-year-olds – amid criticism following the Wall Street Journal report.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic