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Spot on or unfair? Facebook employees split on whistleblower Frances Haugen’s critique

Inside the notoriously insular company, employees’ perceptions of Haugen appear to be divided

Frances Haugen has changed the conversation about Facebook.
Frances Haugen has changed the conversation about Facebook. Composite: Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock
Frances Haugen has changed the conversation about Facebook. Composite: Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock
Carly Olson

Last modified on Thu 14 Oct 2021 15.04 BST

When former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen testified before the Senate last Tuesday, she painted an unsightly picture of the social networking company.

As a member of the company’s civic misinformation team for almost two years until her departure in May, Haugen shared insights the company had previously hidden – from Facebook’s willingness to propagate hateful content on its platforms to keep users engaged to research proving Instagram’s detrimental effects on teen girls’ mental health – and leaked thousands of pages of internal documents backing up her claims.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money,” Haugen said in an appearance on 60 Minutes.

Lawmakers, in a rare display of bipartisanship, applauded Haugen for coming forward as a “whistleblower” who identified foul play. But inside the notoriously insular company, employees’ perceptions of Haugen appear to be divided.

Facebook is known for ironclad NDAs and a history of retaliating against workers who speak out. Even when the company faced sharp condemnation in the past, including after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, public airing of internal criticism has been muted.

Facebook employees have become more vocal internally in past years, however. Last summer, employees spoke out against Zuckerberg’s handling of Donald Trump’s Facebook posts. Zuckerberg defended his decision to allow Trump to continue using the platform citing free speech arguments, but many saw it as a public display of valuing Facebook’s engagement – Trump’s posts bringing eyeballs to the platform – over ethics.

Responding to Haugen’s testimony, according to the New York Times, the company’s communications department issued a memo to employees reminding them to stay silent, no matter their views on Haugen and her revelations.

“We are increasingly hearing about reporter requests to employees to discuss Frances Haugen and people’s sentiments about her,” Andrea Saul, a director of policy communications, reportedly said in the memo. “We have had employees specifically ask if they can defend the company by referencing experiences they had with her. PLEASE DO NOT ENGAGE in these conversations.”

Few employees have been willing to break those NDA agreements to speak on the record. Those that have done so prominently have echoed some of the sentiments Zuckerberg voiced in a lengthy internal memo last week seen by the Guardian. “It’s difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Some of the employees who spoke publicly said Haugen failed to recognize the steps the company is already taking to make its products more ethical. In a series of tweets published on Friday, David Gillis, a product design director at Facebook, said that he has supported some of Facebook’s teams that work on integrity and safety issues, and Haugen’s testimony didn’t acknowledge the progress that’s been made.

“Frances didn’t work on stuff like this and maybe was already starting to move on from FB at the time,” he wrote. “My point is our teams do have a track record of making core product changes that prioritize integrity impact over engagement, which I am proud of.”

In the thread, he cited a series of updates that the teams have made to Facebook, such as a feature that reminds users to read articles before sharing them; if one attempts to share an article they haven’t opened, Facebook now displays a prompt encouraging one to read it for fear of “missing key facts” before distributing it to one’s network.

Gillis added: “I think for past and present folks who’ve worked on integrity here, there *is* a felt sense that we face headwinds, asymmetries and structural barriers to advancing our work; that there’s a higher bar our teams often need to clear to have impact.”

On Blind, a popular app where employees can anonymously discuss their employers, others have offered similar takes.

“Fb has better moderation than any other social platform by a mile,” one employee posted in a thread about Haugen’s testimony. Another employee argued that all companies prioritize profits without the scrutiny Facebook has received of late.

Some appeared to downplay the revelations and the source material Haugen collected to support it. One Facebook employee wrote that the documents leaked on teen mental health are hardly incriminating, and in her testimony, Haugen “just stated her personal opinion”, though Haugen had revealed the findings of three years of research studies, which demonstrate adverse effects on many teens. Still, the post has dozens of “likes”.

But speaking anonymously to reporters, other employees have offered a harsher evaluation of the company. Haugen’s testimony was spot-on, one employee told the New York Times: Haugen was a “hero”. Another applauded her for “saying things that many people here have been saying for years”.

On Wednesday, the company reportedly made private those discussion groups on its internal message board Workplace that are focused on platform safety and protecting elections in an effort to further prevent leaks.