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 be in Washington in four days, Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed asked. She had been chosen to be the first lady’s guest at the next State of the Union.
“It was actually slightly disruptive,” recalls Haugen, who lives in Puerto Rico. “But, you know – the kind of disturbance you don’t mind.”
It wasn’t until October, during a “60 Minutes” interview, that Haugen first publicly identified as the whistleblower responsible for leaking thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to Congress, the Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
These revelations – which were later made available to many other media outlets, including The Times — has made the former Facebook product manager the face of a long-running backlash against Facebook, its sister app Instagram, and the wider social media industry. By releasing files demonstrating that Facebook (which has since changed its name to Meta Platforms) had internal knowledge of a wide variety of issues with its products, including the effect they can have on teenage mental health, Haugen offered the company’s critics something that looked a lot like a smoking gun.
The transition to public figure was unlikely for Haugen. “I don’t need attention,” she told The Times. “I ran away the first time I got married. I’ve had two birthday parties in about 20 years.
But now, his profile boosted by a presidential shoutout in the State of the Union address, Haugen is making the most of his new rostrum. It means throwing your full weight behind efforts to address the same issues she helped expose, including in California.
At the center of his efforts is a bill crawling through the state assembly. Dubbed the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, it would require web platforms that children are likely to use to set up data privacy measures such as making user settings highly private by default, describing privacy policies in language children can understand, and prohibiting children’s personal information from being used for purposes other than those for which it was originally collected.
“I don’t want to take too much credit for [the bill] because I had no role in drafting it,” Haugen said. “But I’m a big believer that we need to start extending the same standards that we have for physical toys for kids into the virtual space, because right now there are some pretty insane consequences that are happening because these products are not designed for children.”
Haugen hosted a Q&A session for state lawmakers in Sacramento a few weeks ago – “I am more than willing to help answer questions from anyone who wants to learn more about the impacts [of] the algorithms are” — and also spoke at the Mom 2.0 Summit, a Los Angeles gathering for influencers focused on parenting in late April.
That Haugen is largely focused on how social media affects its younger users is no coincidence. Although its revelations shed light on a wide variety of internet issues — misinformation, radicalization and human trafficking — it’s the content about children and teens that seems to have moved lawmakers the most.
In particular, internal Facebook research that Haugen helped publicize showed that nearly a third of teenage girls surveyed by the company said that “when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel more evil”. Facebook had historically downplayed its effect on the mental health of young users, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
The company argued after the leak that its research had been misrepresented, but the revelation nonetheless sparked of the congress hearings and, although the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act was developed independently of Haugen, raised the stakes for the California bill.
“Frances has raised tremendous awareness for this cause, especially on the issue of children,” said Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who co-sponsors the Design Code Act, in an emailed statement. . “I am grateful that she came to Sacramento last month to speak to lawmakers and advocates, and that she continues to lend her voice and expertise to explain why policies like the code are necessary to keep children safe. in line.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Haugen said she was not surprised that this part of her leaks had generated so much interest.
“The solutions to many of the issues outlined in my disclosures are actually quite complicated,” she said. “When it comes to children, it’s very simple.”
The effect of social media on children has become such a burning issue that a second bill with a similar objective is also being considered by the Assembly: the social media platform, which would allow parents sue social media companies to design addictive software. Haugen said she was unaware of the bill, but co-sponsor Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles) told The Times in March that her leaks were a catalyst. (A representative for Cunningham said the deputy has not worked or spoken directly with Haugen. Wicks, the Democrat from Oakland, is also a co-sponsor of the Duty to Children Act.)
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that figures prominently in Haugen’s advocacy, analyzes the effect media and technology have on young people, and Jim Steyer, its founder and CEO. Common Sense Media asked Haugen if she would help support the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, the whistleblower said, and she said yes.
“Frances has proven to be a great partner for us because she…does a great job of explaining how tech platforms work, some of the harms involved and why we need major legislation and regulation. “, said Steyer, the brother of 2020 presidential candidate and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.
Her organization has been working with Haugen for about five months, Steyer said, after her legal team approached her to collaborate: “We started planning ways to work on federal legislation, as well as California legislation, as well as on mobilizing young people. .” (Wicks worked at Common Sense Media.)
The organization also worked with the White House to bring Haugen to the State of the Union, Steyer said.
Haugen’s grip extends beyond the west coast. She estimates that she spent around five and a half weeks in Europe working to support a historic law of the European Union – the Digital Services Act – which would require social media platforms, including Facebook, to more aggressively moderate hate speech, misinformation and other user-generated content, as well as ban ads online targeting children. Both the European Parliament and the Member States of the European Union have agree on the content of the DSA, although it is still subject to formal approval.
“Until the adoption of the DSA, that was sort of the main focus, providing support around awareness,” Haugen said. She was on the ground “supporting legislators, giving testimonies, meeting with various ministries [and] meeting with other civil society groups”, and also 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 aimed at helping investors “have criteria on how to assess whether or not social media companies are acting in a prosocial way,” she said. she said, and is working to create a non-profit organization. which will combine this work with litigation support as well as education efforts aimed at teaching people about social media. Steyer said his organization helped Haugen “incubate” his nonprofit.
It’s a meteoric rise for someone who less than a year ago had no national profile.
“When I leaked the documents to the SEC and Congress, I had no expectation of what was going to happen,” Haugen said. “My main goal was that I didn’t want to carry the burden for the rest of my life that I had known something and done nothing.”
But despite everything that’s happened since she entered the public eye — phone calls to the White House, European excursions, rubbing shoulders with California’s political heavyweights — Haugen said the main difference she has been through for the past few months has been the weight that has been lifted from her shoulders.
“The biggest thing that has changed in my life,” she said, “is that I can sleep at night.”
Los Angeles Times