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Frances Haugen, the data engineer determined to temper Facebook

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Frances Haugen is seen the day of her congressional testimony in Washington October 5, 2021./AFP
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Oct 06, 2021 - 03:51 AM

NEW YORK — Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who testified before Congress Tuesday, is sure of her position: that the social network can do just as much harm as good in a hyper-connected world — and that its power must be restrained.

The 37-year-old data scientist, who worked on the company’s civic integrity team, quietly compiled thousands of internal documents before she left Facebook in May, and distributed them to the Wall Street Journal and US lawmakers.

They found the contents so alarming that they quickly arranged for Haugen to testify at a congressional hearing about children’s online safety.

Haugen made her first public appearance Sunday night on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” explaining her concerns about Facebook’s failures to address misinformation, hate and other toxic content on their platforms.

Clearly and incisively, she repeated her worries Tuesday to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Haugen says she has watched her own friend fall prey to the pull of conspiracy theories on social media.

“It’s one thing to study misinformation, it’s another to lose someone to it,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

She said she started at Facebook in 2019 with the hope of helping the web giant course-correct on some of its worst transgressions — but gradually became more and more concerned about the choices she saw the company making.

Testimony 

In order to make money through advertising, Haugen explained, Facebook must convince users to return to the platform again and again, for as long as possible each time. That means their algorithms favor the most attention-grabbing posts, so content that is hateful or sows discord is often what is allowed to circulate most widely.

Facebook has at times deployed anti-disinformation efforts and has modified News Feed algorithms to disadvantage false information.

But their dedicated disinfo team, which monitored risks posed by certain users or certain kinds of content leading up to elections, was dismantled shortly after the US presidential vote in November 2020.

Barely two months later, the US Capitol building was invaded by violent insurrectionists — some of whom, Haugen noted on “60 Minutes,” used Facebook to organize the attack.

She began to question the Silicon Valley company’s commitment to integrity, concluding Facebook was prioritizing “profit over safety,” she said.

In March, Haugen moved to Puerto Rico, hoping to continue her pandemic-era routine of remote work. But Facebook’s human resources department told her that wouldn’t be possible, so Haugen instead chose to resign, she told the Wall Street Journal.

But she wants to make public what she says she knows about Facebook and its other social apps: for example, that the company’s own research shows that spending time on Instagram can be harmful to teens’ mental health.

Haugen spent her last days at Facebook collecting internal records chronicling that research. She worked with an NGO that specializes in aiding whistleblowers, constantly expecting to be caught.

‘I want to save’ Facebook 

On her recently created Twitter account, Haugen calls herself an “advocate for public oversight of social media.”

“Together we can create social media that brings out the best in us. We solve problems together — we don’t solve them alone,” she wrote on her former employer’s competitor platform.

Haugen, who grew up in the politically powerful midwestern US state of Iowa as the daughter of two university professors, recalls attending presidential caucuses with her parents.

That experience gave her “a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation,” Haugen said on her personal website.

The Harvard Business School graduate has also volunteered at the free-spirited annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, tasked with explaining rules to attendees and helping resolve conflicts.

A computer engineer, Haugen describes herself as a specialist in algorithms, a skill she has taken with her throughout a career in the tech industry, working at companies such as Google, dating app Hinge, review site Yelp and style-inspiration network Pinterest.

She signed into her job at Facebook for the last time just before 7:00 pm on May 17, Haugen told the Wall Street Journal.

She wrote one final, cryptic message in the internal system: “I don’t hate Facebook,” she typed.

“I love Facebook. I want to save it.”

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