Four years ago, Frances Haugen joined Facebook to work on ending the spread of misinformation on the platform. Now, she is known for being a whistleblower who travels the world to talk about holding the big tech company accountable for its negligence of public safety.

The NAU Honors College hosted Haugen, a former Facebook employee and data scientist, on March 29 for the third event in the 2023 Honors Distinguished Speakers Series

In 2019, Haugen joined Facebook as the lead product manager for the Civic Misinformation team that was created to prevent misinformation during the 2020 presidential election. Haugen said she took the job with the incentive to work against misinformation, but after the election, Facebook dissolved the Civic Misinformation team. 

She said she was overwhelmed by the actions Facebook took to put company profit over public safety by allowing the spread of harmful and hate-fueling misinformation. In 2021, Haugen documented tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents with a burner phone and resigned from the company in May. The same year, she leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal and revealed her identity on 60 Minutes as the “Facebook Whistleblower” a month later. 

Haugen said she felt a responsibility to spend her future exposing Facebook when she discovered how the company valued profit over safety by allowing the spread of misinformation. Furthermore, she said she felt responsible when she discovered — through company documents and data — Facebook’s actions were leading to violence around the world. She cited Facebook’s spread of misinformation as a source of the Rohingya genocide in 2016 and the Ethiopian civil war from 2020-22, together costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

“Facebook was telling the world they were safe — they weren't safe,” Haugen said, “They were taking advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”

Haugen now spends her life advocating for accountability and transparency in social media. She has testified in front of the United States Congress, launched the non-profit Beyond the Screen in 2022 and is publishing a book in June titled “The Power of One.”

She has a degree in electoral and computer engineering from the Olin College of Engineering and a master of business administration from Harvard University. Prior to Facebook, she worked at Google, Pinterest and Yelp, specializing in algorithmic product management. She said the world of technology has advanced greatly since beginning her career at Google 16 years ago.

“When I joined Google, data science as a concept was not a thing,” Haugen said. “The world was that different. So, I had no idea I would be in this place when I was in college because that world didn't really exist.”

As part of her work in advocating for changes in Facebook and other social media companies, Haugen speaks to younger generations at universities across the country.

This year, NAU is one of the two universities Haugen has visited, with the first lecture taking place at Duke University. She said although she spoke at more universities last year, she and her team reduced visits for 2023 to prepare for the release of her book this summer. Haugen said she made an exception to speak at NAU because of her family in Flagstaff. 

The event on Wednesday was held in a Q&A format. NAU Professor Paul Flikkema and Assistant Professor Jiun-Yi Tsai took turns asking Haugen questions about her experiences and knowledge in data science. The moderators also asked her for advice on how individuals can advocate for media changes.

“She is a courageous visionary and she has become a tireless advocate for reforming social media so that it better meets the needs of people's well-being and society,” Flikkema said.

Haugen discussed several immediate changes media companies can make for their platforms to be safer. Some of the changes include allowing users an efficient bedtime feature that slows down the app as a set time nears and requiring individuals to click on a link in a post before they can repost. Haugen said the technology is already present for these features and research shows them to be beneficial to mental health and reducing misinformation, but they are not used by Facebook.

Haugen also advocated for expanded education in technology. She said the world needs more “and” people — those who study technology and fields like policy or communication.

Flikkema is a professor in the School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems and the inaugural Gumerman professor in the Honors College. He instructs an honors course at NAU, called “Technology: Fact and Fiction,” and said he addresses media accountability and transparency issues with his students by engaging them in class discussions and critical thinking.

“We had a really good discussion in my honors class, my Calderwood seminar, about [the importance of educating students in media transparency], and the students recognize the negative effects of current social media platforms, doom-scrolling, wasting time, depression [and] suicide,” Flikkema said.

During the event, Haugen addressed actions individuals can take if they are not in a technology profession.

She listed three strategies for persons wanting to change social media platforms: writing to brands that advertise on Facebook to inform them of what they are supporting, talking to family members who fall into social media addictions or checking in on the health of friends’ relationships with social media.

“I want you to know you don't have to be a coder to be someone who changes big tech,” Haugen said. “You just have to want more and demand it.” 

Taylor Gilmore, a junior at NAU pursuing degrees in biology and chemistry, attended the Q&A. Prior to seeing the event advertisements put out by the Honors College, Gilmore said she had not heard of Haugen. However, because of her passion for social media, Gilmore said she was intrigued by Haugen’s story.

“I feel like social media has taken over the lives of most individuals,” Gilmore said. “Social media can be used as an asset in your life; however, through observation, I have recognized that the way people are using it has turned it into a liability to life.” 

One year ago, Gilmore said she decided to stop participating in social media because she recognized her addiction to it. She said she was able to empathize and connect with Haugen throughout the event because she observed her own morals and values in Haugen’s words and gestures. 

While Gilmore is not pursuing a career in technology, she said she will incorporate Haugen's call to change the societal relationship with social media and demand transparency and accountability from companies into her life. 

“At the end of the day, I will fulfill my moral obligation of sharing the knowledge that I have gained about social media to every human that I encounter,” Gilmore said. 

Haugen continues to advocate for accountability from Facebook and other social media companies who are presenting harm to the public while she encourages individuals to stand up against the platforms and demand change.

Feature Writer

Lily Combs has been writing for The Lumberjack since January 2023. She is double majoring in photography and journalism.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.