Whistleblower Frances Haugen Still Believes in Silicon Valley

When the Wall Street Journal launched a series of explosive articles based on internal Facebook documents in September, people naturally wondered about the source. Apparently, an unnamed employee had left the company, taking with her hundreds of documents that exposed how much Facebook (which changed its name to Meta several weeks later) understood the harm it was doing and how insufficient its remedies were. In October, 60 Minutes provided the answer: The whistleblower was a 37-year-old former product manager named Frances Haugen.

I almost did a spit take when I saw her face on the screen. Though I hadn’t spoken to Haugen for some time, I had gotten to know her fairly well on a 16-day trip around the world in 2007, led by Google vice president Marissa Mayer. Haugen had been one of 18 Google associate product managers on the trip, and as an embedded journalist I had interviewed and hung out with all of them.

The Frances Haugen that I saw on television that night—and the one who later testified to Congress, to the British Parliament, and the EU—was in many ways unchanged from the 22-year-old Googler in my traveling party: impeccably organized, a bit nerdy, and viscerally repelled by unfairness. But I wanted to get more of a sense of what led her to what many consider an act of courage and Facebook/Meta considers an act of perfidy. To WIRED, Meta denies Haugen’s claim that the company sacrifices safety for profit: “As a company, we have every commercial and moral incentive to try to give the maximum number of people as much of a positive experience as possible on Facebook,” says spokesperson Drew Pusateri, who also disputes Haugen’s claim that the company fails to adequately moderate content outside the US. It’s a tough argument for Meta to make because the documents Haugen presented say otherwise.

What happened to make Frances Haugen simultaneously a hero to both parties in Congress and Mark Zuckerberg’s most dangerous critic?

Last week I sat down virtually with her—she was at a Berkeley hotel, on her first trip to the Bay Area since she left Facebook—to discuss her personal journey, the Company Formerly Known as Facebook, and her future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Steven Levy: When I first saw your face in the promo for 60 Minutes I thought back to that 2007 trip. If I were to guess which one of those 18 associate product managers would become a whistleblower, it would have been you. You struck me as a little different— everyone else was locked into a standard Silicon Valley career path. But you were talking about going to graduate school. You also had a sixth sense for injustice. Does that sound right to you?

Frances Haugen: I probably had a broader education than a lot of the other APMs. They had relatively consistent CVs—they went to Stanford and had CS degrees. I went to Olin, which was a brand-new engineering school; I was part of the first graduating class there. I took a bunch of humanities classes. I had done high school debate, and I coached in college. One of the goals of a liberal arts education is to establish who you are as a person. And one of the unfortunate things about how engineering is often taught now is that they fill people’s schedules so full with requirements that you lose some of that self-definition period that college is traditionally about. I feel very grateful that I had that experience because it gives you a chance to kind of establish how you make decisions, and what is important to you. You can be externally defined, or you can be internally defined. Still, I wouldn’t say that I was a super outsider. I loved Google. But I did probably have a little bit more context.

Frances Haugen and Megan Quinn eating in a Beijing restaurant

Frances Haugen in a Beijing restaurant in July 2007. She is pictured with Megan Quinn, then at Google and now the COO of Niantic Labs.

Courtesy of Steven Levy

Why did you leave Google?

I got put on a performance improvement plan because my manager thought I was faking when in fact I was dying. I had a foot-long clot in my leg, and I was starving to death. I don’t want this to be construed as criticism of Google, because even my own doctors were not able to put their finger on it. I have Celiac disease, and I didn’t understand how seriously I should have been taking it. In two and a half years I went from biking 125 miles a day to being in a wheelchair. I was exhausted and gaining weight because my body was just storing protein as fat. And so, yeah, I got put on a performance improvement plan and left. I wish someone had counseled me to go on disability because I would have probably gone back to Google after I got better. Instead, about two months after I left, I ended up in the hospital for seven weeks. I almost died.

How long did it take you to recover?

Years. I was in a walker for a long time. It took 15 months from when I went into the hospital to walking without a cane. It took another year for me to walk a mile and a half without stopping. I did hundreds of hours of physical therapy. I didn’t really get back to my full shape until around January 2020.

After you returned to work after being sick you worked for Yelp and Pinterest. But you still were recovering?

I was definitely in recovery. I’d just finished physical therapy when I joined Facebook, so I was able to go to normal exercise classes. But I didn’t really get back to like 85 percent of my normal level of athleticism until January 2020.

In those jobs after Google and before Facebook, had your view of tech companies soured?

I still feel very positively about most Silicon Valley tech companies. I don’t think there’s an inherent rot or something like that. I do believe that there is a need for transparency across any power, any platform that has a lot of power. And then I think we need slightly different relationships with them.

By 2019 Facebook had already suffered scandals and had very public defections. Yet you joined that tainted company.

I got approached by a recruiter in December of 2018. I said the only thing I would work on is civic misinformation. I think we need a lot more people working inside Facebook to fix Facebook’s problems. I strongly encourage people to work at Facebook.

Hold on. Even after you unearthed all those damning documents, you’re urging people to join Facebook?

People question whether you can be a person with integrity and work at Facebook. If anything, Facebook is a flat enough organization that if a lot of people came there determined to fix it, I think they would actually have a positive impact.

Yet you left.

I did because I couldn’t stay any longer and continue to live in Puerto Rico [where I moved for health reasons]. I still live with severe pain every day, because I was paralyzed beneath my knees. Even being back in the Bay Area right now is shockingly hard for me because it’s cold and damp here, and really painful every day that I’m here. And so I had to choose between being in a place where I was much more comfortable or working at Facebook.

Wait—if Facebook had told you could work from Puerto Rico, you’d still be working there? And none of this would have happened?

At some point, I would have had to still go. At some point, you have to begin the conversation. But I don’t think I would have left at that instant.

So after they said you couldn’t work from Puerto Rico, you made this momentous decision to take those documents with you. Why did you feel it was up to you to trigger this conversation?

I did not believe that they could solve their problems on their own. The reality of any organization design is that if you want to actually change, you have to have a critical mass of people who are working to solve a problem. At Facebook I was in a pod of about seven or eight product managers and program managers. Within a six-week span, the entire pod left. Most of them were from civic integrity originally. I don’t think I was the only one who felt that Facebook had kind of given up on its mission or wasn’t taking it seriously.

I’m not someone to turn away from someone in need. I volunteer at Burning Man as a ranger because I believe people change by being helped. I don’t believe people change by being shamed. I knew Facebook had issues before I joined and I’d lived with some of the personal consequences of that because I had a friend who was radicalized. But when I arrived, I had only ever thought about misinformation in the context of the United States. I never thought about it in the context of much more fragile places in the world. But even within two weeks of joining, I was like, “Oh, my goodness, this is so much worse than I thought it was going to be.” And so I think at some point in 2020, it began to dawn on me how many lives are on the line.

With regard to “Why me?” I knew that because I had worked on multiple algorithmic products at multiple social media companies, I could speak with a higher level of credibility than other people. And I knew that I could explain these things. And because Facebook was my fourth social media company, I could say with credibility that things there were substantially worse than I had seen in other places.

Was there anything in particular that pushed you into this act? Doing this is almost like stepping off a cliff. At a certain point, there’s no turning back.

No one intends to be a whistleblower. It’s not an A plan, B plan, or C plan. It’s like a E and F, G and H, J, K plan, right? I think the thing that happens to a lot of whistleblowers is, they live with this horrible pain that comes from seeing a truth that jeopardizes a huge number of lives. By the time they blow the whistle, they are wrecks because they have held the secret inside of them for so long. They come forward because they could do nothing else. I’m so grateful to my mother, who is a priest, because I got to agonize to her for countless hours. The wonder of living with a priest is you get to struggle as much as you want to struggle.

It’s true, going forward is a stepping-off-a-ledge thing. When I coached debate, I’d have these hypothetical conversations with my 14-year-olds where you ask questions like, if you could save a life, what would you be willing to sacrifice? OK, so let’s say you’re going to save 10 lives, what would you sacrifice? And if you could save 1,000 lives, what would you sacrifice? I genuinely believe that there are tens of millions of lives on the line right now. That might not be in the next year—it’s in the next 10 or 20 years. But in that context, I think most people would be willing to sacrifice some pretty big things.

Personally. I’m lucky. When you hear someone’s brave, you should hear their privilege. I sold my house when Covid came, so I don’t have a mortgage. I love children, I want to have children, but I’m also 37, and I don’t have kids now. And I have enough resources where I can probably be fine. I’m not independently wealthy to the point where I never need to work again. But I have enough.

Another thing I noticed about you when we traveled was that you were a very organized person and had an engineering mindset to your life. So it wasn’t surprising to me that when you did decide to blow the whistle, you made sure all your ducks were in order—the right organization, an experienced legal team, associations with Congress and international legislatures, and a coherent media strategy. By the time the world learned who you were, you had built this infrastructure around yourself, where you had some control over what was happening.

I am a product manager. And the job of product managers is to build teams. I would say even within a month of beginning to talk to Whistleblower Aid, they were like, “You are better at recruiting help for yourself than any client we’ve ever had before. You are even better in how you communicate with us—you’re so stable.”

I have a question about the documents that you took with you from Facebook. Were you selective in choosing them, or just got the ones available?

I picked questions. For example, human trafficking. [Facebook’s internal social network] Workplace is not designed to retrieve things. If you want to get specific things, it’s actually quite difficult because you have to just keep scrolling and incrementally load, and all sorts of things. Someone else would have more trouble, but I’ve designed multiple search engines at this point. There’s a bunch of weird things I had to do in terms of how to use the search to be able to look further back. I basically captured things until it seemed like I wasn’t getting anything new anymore. It wasn’t a cherry-pick, like Facebook says.

Here’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg said of your effort: “It’s a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.” What’s your response?

I did not select the worst ones and not release lots of ones that were less bad. I basically asked a question, and then I got whatever I had access to. Facebook could fix all of this by releasing all these mythical positive documents that I didn’t include.

Do you feel that the corpus of documents you provided is an accurate representation of the way Facebook polices its content?


Facebook also says that you were a relatively low-level employee who has stepped out of her lane by making recommendations for what regulators should do. You even said Mark Zuckerberg should resign.

I don’t like to criticize individuals. I got forced into that corner. But the idea that he can afford 10,000 engineers to build video games when we don’t have even basic safety systems for huge swaths of Facebook users, I think is really negligent. It’s the thing that’s going to kill a lot of people. And so once that happened, it felt fairly obvious to me that there was perhaps the wrong set of values at the top.

Zuckerberg has renamed the company to Meta. What do you think of that?

Has he ever read Snow Crash? I’m so confused—either he never read it or he doesn’t understand the story, or doesn’t understand dystopia. I do think renaming the company Meta represents a meta problem of Facebook’s, which is they always prioritize growth and expansion over making sure the things they have already built are safe. Facebook doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that they bought the right to be the internet for the majority of languages in the world. For the majority of languages in the world, 80 to 90 percent of all the content in that language is on Facebook, and Facebook choked the free and open internet by subsidizing all the internet access. Why would you move on when you’ve taken on this huge burden?

Between The Wall Street Journal and the consortium of journalistic outlets [including WIRED] with access to the documents, there’s been a lot of reporting on those papers. Do you feel that there’s something we missed?

There’s a thing that most people don’t understand. Every other similarly powerful industry in the world, or even a general market in the world, is radically more transparent than Facebook is. It’s like there was a factory producing a widget, and around that factory, kids were getting cancer. A scientist could go and put up a detector and independently validate that there was pollution from the factory that was making those cancer cases. But with Facebook, most people aren’t aware of the idea that we have no transparency into the system. They may understand subjectively that Facebook makes them feel bad [but they don’t have the data]. And not only do we not have transparency, but Facebook actively gaslights us and lies to us repeatedly. Facebook does not want us to see what happens; they don’t want to give out even aggregate data. When they have given out some aggregate data, like the academic consortium a couple months ago, they literally gave false data.

Even with more transparency at a moderate level, we would have very different conversations. Facebook has lots of solutions—this is not an intractable problem. But they are all solutions that require sacrifices of slivers of profit. Does Facebook deserve to have 17 percent profit margins, or, heaven forbid, 12 percent profit margins? [Note: Meta’s most recent operating margin was 36 percent.] That conversation has distracted people. It’s not a question of whether we have Facebook or not, but whether we deserve to have a Facebook that is safe. I totally understand that journalists need to be objective and fair. But I think sometimes we’re getting lost in the forest because of the trees. I haven’t seen reporting on that as much as I would have liked.

What’s next for you?

I really want to do simulated social networks. Right now if you want to take college courses to be a data scientist or an algorithmic engineer, there’s not really a lab class. If you want to be a chemist, you could take lots and lots of classes where you blow up stuff or breathe in stuff you shouldn’t breathe in. But [when it comes to social media] you can’t really run [simulations]. Here’s an example. When I was at Facebook, one of the first analyses I did was around concentration of voice rights. This is this question of what fraction of users make up 80 percent of the voice in a given country? As of 2019, the United States was the most democratic: I found that around 12 percent of people made 80 percent of voice in the US. But in lots of countries around the world, 1 percent of people make up 80 percent of the voice. I raised this at Facebook—this is a major driver of misinformation, right? People came back to me and said, “Well, how do we prove what level of concentration we should have?” I was shaking my head on the inside, because like, that was a philosophical question, not an empirical question. Because we don’t have things like simulated social networks, we can’t run the network a bunch of different times to test different concentrations. In the case of Facebook, we just had to make a choice.

Are concerned that your actions as a whistleblower are going to constrain your options?

Life is so short. To paraphrase Camus, once you conquer your fear of death, anything is possible. I’ve gotten lots of job offers. I’m actually kind of shocked every time I open LinkedIn because I’ll see something from a recruiter. But the reality is that if I can never work in tech again, I can still go surfing in Puerto Rico. It doesn’t take that much to be happy.

More Great WIRED Stories

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Elon Musk Says He’s Moving X and SpaceX Headquarters to Texas
OpenAI Touts New AI Safety Research. Critics Say It’s a Good Step, but Not Enough
OpenAI Slashes the Cost of Using Its AI With a ‘Mini’ Model
The AI-Powered Future of Coding Is Near
Craig Wright Faces Perjury Investigation Over Claims He Created Bitcoin

Leave a Reply