Facebook Whistleblower: Frances Haugen

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, caused a major public outcry when she revealed thousands of internal Facebook documents confirming that Facebook was aware of the negative impact social media has on many teens. Although parents and experts had been aware of social media’s harmful effects on kids for years, Haugen’s revelations finally confirmed that Facebook knew as well.

Photo Credit: Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Who Is Frances Haugen?

Frances Haugen is a whistleblower who revealed explosive evidence of Facebook’s own knowledge about its negative effects on users. Haugen began as an exceptional student who went on to work for some of the biggest names in social media and technology before accepting a position at Facebook. After she became alarmed at what she perceived as the company’s desire to maximize profits to the detriment of society and teens, she captured internal documents and released them to the news media. She eventually even testified before Congress.

Frances Haugen's Life Before Facebook

Haugen earned a computer engineering degree from Olin College of Engineering, a top-three engineering university, and an MBA from Harvard. Before joining Facebook, Haugen worked as a product manager for other social media and big tech companies, such as Yelp and Google. She was recruited to join Facebook, and she insisted that she would work for Facebook only if she would be working to combat the spread of misinformation.

Frances Haugen's Work at Facebook

Haugen eventually accepted a position as a product manager in Facebook’s civics integrity division. Unfortunately, she became discouraged about her work at Facebook. She believed that the company often claimed to be working hard to stop the spread of misinformation but that the psychological effects of misinformation actually increased the company’s profits. The more that the misinformation riled up Facebook users, the more they engaged with the content. Haugen considered Facebook to be prioritizing its profits over its social responsibility.

Indeed, Haugen said that her team of employees charged with combating misinformation were inexperienced, and Facebook failed to adopt employee recommendations that could have helped decrease the spread of misinformation. She claimed that Facebook did not invest in resources that could have helped her mission.

In December 2020, Haugen became resolved to blow the whistle on what was happening at Facebook. At that time, she claims, Facebook dissolved her team working on civic integrity. Facebook disputes Haugen’s characterization, claiming that the team was scattered across the country to increase its influence rather than disbanded.

After these changes to her team, Haugen began preparing for her next steps.

Frances Haugen's Departure From Facebook

Haugen finally resigned from Facebook in May 2021. She had been working remotely from Puerto Rico, and Facebook told her that it would no longer allow remote work from a United States territory. Before resigning, Haugen pulled thousands of documents from Facebook’s internal employee forum, called Workplace, that related to integrity. These documents became known as the Facebook Papers.

What Are the Facebook Papers?

The Facebook Papers — sometimes called the Facebook Files — are the thousands of Facebook internal documents that Haugen collected before she resigned. Haugen provided these documents to the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets, exposing the depth of Meta’s knowledge about the harm caused by its social media apps, including Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook Papers' Key Findings

The Facebook Papers revealed internal data that Facebook had never before made public. This included the sharing of misinformation on its site as well as data the company had collected in its own studies on the impact of social media on teens. Some of Facebook’s key findings from those studies showed the following effects of Instagram use on teens:

  • 13.5% of teen girls in the United Kingdom had more frequent suicidal thoughts.
  • 17% of teen girls experienced the worsening of an eating disorder.
  • 32% of teen girls who had felt bad about their bodies felt even worse.

The news that social media can harm teens’ mental health was not surprising to many experts and parents. For years, parents have seen their children struggle with mental health issues due to social media use. Social media use is incredibly addictive, especially for kids and teens, whose brains are still developing.

Scientific researchers and other experts outside of Facebook have confirmed that social media has negatively affected teens’ mental health, with many experiencing one or more of the following:

  • Negative body image. Research has shown that comparing our bodies with images that are supposed to be inspirational online creates negative body issues. Body dissatisfaction has been linked to depression in teens.
  • Depression. Researchers have discovered a correlation between time spent on social media and depression. Negative body image, decreased physical activity, and disrupted social relationships caused by heavy social media use are all potential reasons for the correlation.
  • Eating disorders. Having a social media account is heavily linked with disordered eating. In one study, researchers found that more than half of the teenage followers of health food accounts on Instagram had symptoms of anorexia nervosa.
  • Loneliness. Many teens experienced an increase in feelings of loneliness following social media use. Unfortunately, loneliness is often connected with the development of other mental health issues, including lower self-esteem, depression, and even suicide.
  • Low self-esteem. Social media creates countless opportunities for comparison to others, which often makes teens feel like they are lacking. Negative self-esteem can affect many areas of a teen’s life.
  • Suicide. The suicide rate in teens has risen drastically since 2007 — before social media use among teens was as pervasive as it is today. Researchers have established a link between suicide and social media use, likely due to the other impacts that social media has on teens’ mental health. Indeed, families across the country have filed suit against Meta, claiming that they lost a loved one to suicide because of social media use.

Although many experts had already known about the many negative effects of social media use on teens, Facebook had never made the results of its studies public. Haugen said, “Facebook chooses to mislead and misdirect” instead of presenting complete information about social media and teens in response to questions by researchers and lawmakers. Haugen’s revelations finally confirmed that the company was aware of its culpability.

The Response to the Facebook Papers

Following Haugen’s release of the Facebook Papers, a public outcry occurred. Congress conducted hearings about social media safety, with both Haugen and Facebook company officials testifying. Lawmakers took several actions to address the problems caused by social media use. Facebook also took a few steps to address the growing public concern about the safety of its platforms.

Legislation

Lawmakers across the globe have worked to address the impact of social media on teens.

  • In Europe, the Digital Services Act was passed. The law included safeguards such as requiring social media platforms in the European Union to provide additional protections for minors.
  • In the United Kingdom, lawmakers are considering the Online Safety Bill after a teenage girl committed suicide following heavy social media use.
  • In the United States, the Kids Online Safety Act was introduced in the Senate in February 2022.

Facebook's Response

Thanks to the public backlash following Haugen’s actions, Facebook did take a few steps in the right direction. Facebook had been working on a product it was calling Instagram Kids, a version of the app targeting kids under 13 years old. Shortly after the “Wall Street Journal” article was published, Facebook announced that it was pausing work on Instagram Kids.

In addition, Facebook introduced parental controls for Instagram for the first time following the storm created by Haugen. A few months later, Facebook released expanded parental controls for Instagram.

What Still Needs To Be Done?

Despite Facebook’s small step in the right direction, Haugen does not believe that Facebook has made meaningful changes. “They haven’t really learned the right lesson,” she told the crowd at a Vox Media conference a year after the Facebook Papers were published, adding, “They haven’t yet admitted that the way they were doing business is what caused their problems.”

Much more needs to be done to protect children. In addition to advocating for more legislation to regulate Facebook, an issue that lawmakers on both sides tend to agree is necessary, you can push to hold Facebook responsible in court. If you believe your child is one of the many who have been harmed by social media, contact us today for a free, confidential consultation.

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Content Reviewed by:

Matthew P. Bergman

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