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No, Whistleblowing Does Not Make You a Policy Expert

Whistleblowing as a principle dates back to the 7th century, when it was known as “qui tam” in medieval England. This primarily involved the general public bringing forth acts of corruption, theft and any potential illegal schemes to the King and getting rewarded a portion of the sum recovered in return, as a result.

Qui tam was first declared as a law in 695 when King Whitred of Kent issued a decree stating “if a freeman works during [the Sabbath], he shall forfeit his [profits], and the man who informs against him shall have half the fine, and [the profits] of the labor.” On the other side of the Atlantic, while the concept was familiar as a result of the British colonies in North America, it only turned into legislation in the 18th century, when Congress passed the “False Claims Act” to combat unlawful practices.

For a while, most of the whistleblower cases only involved defense contractors but soon their scope increased to finance and healthcare industries. Modern law has incorporated the same principles but introduced Whistleblower Offices pertaining to particular sectors. While typical Whistleblower Programs involve government “insiders”, calling out government abuse, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC’s) Whistleblower Program, allows individuals in corporate firms to report malpractices within the organization to the SEC without having to face any retaliation from their employers and also possibly receive a monetary reward for coming forth.

Now that we’re all caught up with the act itself, let’s discuss the world’s most famous Facebook whistleblower — Frances Haugen. Who is she? Why is she being given so much importance? Why are policy experts and academics unhappy with lawmakers — about how they’re dealing with the revelations made in the Facebook Papers?

Frances Haugen, raised in Iowa, is an ex-Facebook Product Manager who was part of the platform’s civic integrity team. The team was tasked with overseeing risks to elections including misinformation. However, right after the U.S. 2020 elections the team was disbanded. Haugen left Facebook in May 2020, after having lost all hope in the platform. She then went about collecting all necessary internal documents to be submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Haugen previously worked at Google, Pinterest and Yelp before joining Facebook in 2018. The principles of “democracy and responsibility for civic participation”, instilled in her by her parents, forced her to come out as a Facebook whistleblower. Before revealing herself as the whistleblower, she worked with The Wall Street Journal, releasing a series of articles called The Facebook Files, highlighting the platform’s infractions ranging from undermining child safety to special treatment of certain individuals on its platform. More recently a limited number of journalists have gotten access to the Facebook Papers, a collection of internal documents that Haugen submitted to Congress as evidence.

Despite many singing the praises of Haugen, there are a rising number of policy experts not too happy with the attention she’s receiving. While some claim that she’s merely reiterating previous work, others claim she’s not in a position to suggest recommendations to lawmakers. For instance, Jillian York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a recent article wrote how local organizations in Palestine have been reporting on civil unrest and Facebook’s inaction to limit content further flaming the situation for years. Thus, it was no surprise to them when the Facebook Files pointed to poor moderation in the Middle Eastern and North African regions. The documents rather served as an act of reassurance to previously known facts. York maintains that Frances should have credited previous work done by these experts while supporting their work with the evidence that she collected.

Moreover, the Facebook Papers are currently being shared with only selective news outlets, known as the Facebook Papers Consortium. The Consortium, which is presumed to be decided by Haugen’s PR firm, Bryson Gillette, consists of only Western news outlets. It’s ironic how many of the harms documented in the Papers are related to the global south, while no news outlet from there is part of this consortium. Such a choice presumes that the news outlets currently analyzing the Papers have global expertise, be it local language or politics, or Haugen’s call for fighting online harms on a global scale is just a farce.

One might argue that legal and privacy constraints were a major reason why the initial release of these documents was limited to the chosen 300 media outlets. However, after receiving criticism about the initial distribution process of the Papers, Gizmodo announced that it was “leaking” the documents to selective non-Western news outlets. More recently they announced that they are going to make the Facebook Papers open for public access after an initial review by independent experts from New York University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Columbia University, Marquette University, and the American Civil Liberties Union to minimize privacy risks from exposure of these documents.

An ex-Facebook employee from the Integrity team, was recently interviewed by Casey Newton, where he claimed that most receipts submitted by Haugen were reported out of context by media outlets. Some of the documents Frances released were snapshots of comments and threads posted on Facebook’s Workplace, a channel used by Facebook employees to manage internal collaboration. Many times, comments could have been just an employee “thinking out loud” rather than expressing concern about the platform’s actions as reported by media outlets. In no way am I trying to condone Facebook’s actions, the platform has time and again, through its inactions proven that user safety always comes secondary to profits.

But solely relying on these chat receipts could be far fetched, despite them making us privy to internal discussions.

While Haugen’s stated aim is to increase public awareness about how Facebook downplays user safety, politicians may be using her to get their own agendas across. For instance, there’s currently turmoil amongst Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) with respect to the scope of the Digital Services Act. While some want to increase its scope by setting an outright ban on behavioral advertising, others want to exempt news media outlets from platform content takedowns. During Haugen’s session in Brussels, the MEPs wasted no time in posing these questions to Haugen in an attempt to shift the balance of power for the two opinions. However, Haugen chose to refrain from supporting either idea and urged lawmakers to rather urge for “radical transparency”.

Having said that, it takes courage to do what Frances Haugen is currently doing. Not only is being a whistleblower a full-time job on its own, but there are several risks Haugen is exposing herself to. Despite being protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act, the platform can still find loopholes around it and sue her on various accounts. Even though civil society experts have been reporting incidents involving Facebook for years, it was these receipts provided by Frances that gave lawmakers the final push to accelerate content moderation regulations.

As we cross the first step of documenting what Facebook has been overlooking in the past years with respect to user safety, the next steps would be to collaborate with academics and policy experts for Haugen’s revelations to actually bring about changes to the workings of social media platforms.

While she gives her opinion as a data scientist, it is extremely important to consult with policy experts around the world to get a well-rounded understanding of how to effectively uncover the problems brought forth in the Facebook Papers or else it would be the repetition of an on-going pattern where there’s a lot of buzz generated, platforms are called on to testify to Congress, wherein they’re “grilled”, platforms try to push back by sharing all the positive impacts associated with the usage of the platform instead of promising to work with the government. And after a few weeks, the topic is old news.

The public stand taken by Frances, should serve as an example and further encourage other whistleblowers to come forth. For a concept that started as early as the 7th century, the outcomes continue to be extremely beneficial to instilling democracy.

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Checkpoint is a publication of Checkstep Ltd., a startup providing content moderation at scale to online communities. We publish articles related to disinformation, fact-checking, online moderation, and free expression.

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Vibha Nayak

Vibha Nayak

Market Researcher at CheckStep

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