Blowing the Whistle
Why Facebook is being booed off the social media game.
In September 2021, an anonymous former employee leaked confidential information about Facebook, to The Wall Street Journal. A worldwide Facebook outage ‘coincided’ with the claims, leaving the organization grasping at straws to make a valid argument against the allegations placed by the employee. Does this incident place the tech giant at crossroads with social media users, and indicate a possible end to the company?
Frances Haugen: The Whistleblower
Frances Haugen, a former member of the civic integrity team at Facebook revealed her identity in the CBS’ 60 Minutes Interview as the whistleblower that made public - numerous documents, surveys, and insider information to expose Facebook of its capitalist agenda and unethical norms. Haugen now joins a growing list of whistleblowers who are taking Silicon Valley by storm and bringing into light the immoral practices of companies.
Organizations like Facebook, Google and Twitter have strict NDAs for their employees, expecting them to be tight-lipped about internal workings and/or disagreements. When Haugen joined the company in 2018 - after brief stints at Google, Yelp and Pinterest - she found it worrisome that Facebook persistently held back vital information from the public and refused to make changes to their operations, even though they had the power and resources to do so. Facebook placed “astronomical profits over the safety of consumers”, she said and was responsible for incapacitating democracy, by promoting hate speech. Haugen also asserts that the company had a hand in the 2021 U.S. Capitol riots by spreading misinformation and lowering its guard after the completion of the elections.
She highlighted that Facebook would do anything in their power to drive engagement, by purposely making the algorithm unsafe. If not, people would spend less time on their site, click on fewer advertisements, thereby lowering the revenue of the company.
Facebook’s sister company – Instagram, has also been criticized for creating and aggravating eating disorders amongst teen girls, and an internal survey showing that the platform affected teenagers’ mental health was leaked, proving that they are doing little to set things right.
Why is this incident noteworthy?
What set Haugen apart was the fact that she was a former employee, giving her access to actual Facebook memos and documents, adding to her ethos as a whistleblower. When she quit her job in April 2021, she collected enough proof to make a rational and confident stand against the company. The incriminating evidence that she submitted provides little ground for Facebook to make their stand, although, this has not stopped them from providing a usual lengthy statement to poorly counteract the allegations.
Her statement before a Senate subcommittee culminated with both Democrats and Republicans agreeing with the evidence, garnering rare bipartisan support. This goes to show how even rival parties found common ground in opposing Facebook’s exploitative actions.
Monica Bickert, Vice President for Content Policy at Facebook, in an interview with CNN, said that the allegations were “not true”, and attacked Haugen for ‘stealing’ documents. What seemed like a repetition of the company’s manifesto, Bickert poorly defended Facebook and used the ‘stolen documents’ ploy to gain minuscule support.
Lena Pietsch, a Facebook spokesperson, said that Haugen twisted facts to mislead the public, and even went on to say that the organization was trying “to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content.” While the leaked documents and Haugen’s statement say otherwise, Facebook is still trying to salvage the little positive backing that it has.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has unsurprisingly refuted all allegations, painting Facebook to be a merry organization filled with sunny people; calling Haugen’s claims baseless and that they “don’t make any sense”. He also asserted that Facebook is a transparent organization, and follows industry level standards to ensure its trustworthiness.
What does Whistleblowing entail for the individual?
Timnit Gebru, a computer scientist was fired from and ostracized by Google for exposing the ill-effects of the AI software that powered the company’s search engine. Being a Black woman meant dealing with racist and misogynistic hate campaigns that harassed her and spew vitriol online.
Chelsey Glasson left Google in 2019 filing for emotional damages and pregnancy discrimination. Google in turn subjected her to psychiatric analysis and pressed for medical records and notes from her therapy session, wherein she discussed highly personal matters.
Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks quit Pinterest after they spoke up about the racial discrimination and pay gaps that POC and women faced at the organization. Pinterest found no wrongdoing and continued its practices.
These names are just a few of the individuals who have exposed mighty tech organizations for their misconduct and have had to pay the price for their act of bravery. Gebru explains how she considers herself to be privileged enough to have access to therapy, and take time off from continuing with her career, a luxury that not many people can afford.
“A lot of people can’t spend all day fighting the companies because they have to figure out how to feed their families and get healthcare.”
The very act of whistleblowing is accompanied by a blow to the physical, mental and financial security of the whistleblower, many of them facing years of litigation and harassment.
The ‘Silenced No More Act’ was signed by California Governor - Gavin Newsom, on 7th October to render NDAs powerless when employees share their personal experiences after leaving an organization. This Act will come under effect from 2022 acts and encourage workers to speak about workplace discrimination, sexual abuse, and/or pay gaps without facing any depositions or litigations.
The Way Ahead
The companies discussed are still largely white, profit-focused and male-dominated, allowing little space for diversity and ethical considerations. The long legal tussle that is bound to ensue often discourages employees from speaking up, thereby affecting the overall functioning of an organization.
The importance of whistleblowing cannot be undermined. Organizations have an ethical responsibility of protecting their employees and ensuring that accountability is practised. Reporting wrongdoings or misconducts must be considered as an act that amplifies trust in the company, and appropriate resolution of the same only increases efficiency and well-being of the employees. A whistleblower policy must be implemented in every organization, regardless of the size, to foster healthy communication.
Powerful tech corporations must work on making their teams more inclusive, and their platforms safer. As individuals ‘living on the internet', we are in an age of hyperconnectivity and content overload. The recent 6-hour Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram outage showed us how our entire existence is dependent on the presence of social media. While we cannot completely do away with these apps, it is up to the consumers to make a conscious decision to use them mindfully, and engage in productive activities online.
Even Frances Haugen declared that she “loves Facebook”, and has “a lot of empathy for Mark [Zuckerberg]”. After her interview with CBS, she tweeted, “Together we can create social media that brings out the best in us. We solve problems together – we don’t solve them alone”.
~ Rhea Roopesh