Frances Haugen was cooking dinner one Friday night when her phone rang. On the other end of the line was the White House.
Could Haugen be in Washington in four days, Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed asked. She had been chosen to be the first lady’s guest at the upcoming State of the Union address.
“It was actually a bit disruptive,” recalls Haugen, who lives in Puerto Rico. “But, you know — the kind of disruption you don’t mind.”
It was only in October, during a “60 Minutes” interview, that Haugen for the first time made himself known publicly as a whistleblower responsible for leaking thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to Congress, the Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Those revelations – which were subsequently made available to many other news outlets, including The Times — turned Facebook’s former product manager in the face of a long-running backlash against Facebook, its sister app Instagram, and the social media industry that was big. By publishing files showing that Facebook (which has since changed his name to Meta Platforms) was internally aware of a wide variety of issues with its products, including: the effect they can have on teen mental health, Haugen offered company critics something that looked a lot like a smoking gun.
The transition to a public figure was an unlikely one for Haugen. “I don’t crave attention,” she told The Times. “I ran away when I first got married. I’ve had two birthday parties in twenty years.”
But now her profile has been boosted by a presidential shout-out in the State of the Union address, Haugen makes the most of her new soapbox. That means she must commit to solving the same problems she helped expose, including in California.
“I don’t want to take too much credit for” [the bill] because I had no part in drafting it,” Haugen said. “But I’m a big believer that we need to start extending the same standards that we have for physical toys for kids to the virtual space, because right now there’s some pretty insane consequences that are happening because these products aren’t designed for kids.”
Haugen did a question-and-answer session to state lawmakers in Sacramento a few weeks ago — “I’m very willing to help answer questions for anyone who wants to understand more about the implications [of] algorithms” — and also spoke at the Mom 2.0 summit, a Los Angeles gathering for parenting influencers in late April.
It’s no coincidence that Haugen focuses largely on how social media affects their youngest users. While her revelations shed light on a wide range of internet issues — disinformation, radicalization and human trafficking — it’s content about children and teens that seems to have moved lawmakers the most.
Notably, an internal Facebook survey that Haugen helped make public found that nearly a third of the teenage girls the company surveyed said that “When they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Facebook had historically downplayed its effect on young users’ mental health, the Wall Street Journal reported then.
The company has maintained after the spill that its investigation had been misrepresented, but the disclosure nevertheless led to Congress hearings and, although the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act was developed independently of Haugen, the stakes of the California law increased.
“Frances has brought tremendous public awareness to this matter, especially the issue of children,” Assembly member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who wrote the Design Code Act, said in an emailed statement. “I’m grateful that she came to Sacramento last month to speak with lawmakers and attorneys, and that she continues to lend her voice and expertise to explain why policies like the Code are needed to keep children safe online.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Haugen said she’s not surprised that this part of her leaks has attracted so much interest.
“The solutions to many of the problems outlined in my disclosures are actually quite complex,” she said. “When it comes to kids, it’s very simple.”
The effect of social media on children has become such a hot-button issue that a second bill with a similar focus is now also passing through the Assembly: the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, which empowers parents sue social media companies for designing addictive software. Haugen said she was not aware of the bill, but co-sponsor Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles) told The Times in March that her leaks were a catalyst. (A representative from Cunningham said the councilor has not worked or spoken directly with Haugen. Wicks, the Oakland Democrat, is also a co-sponsor of the Duty to Children Act.)
Featured in Haugen’s pleas was Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that: analyzes the effect media and technology have on young people, and Jim Steyer, the founder and chief executive. Common Sense Media asked Haugen if it would help support the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, the whistleblower said, and she said yes.
“Frances has been an excellent partner for us because she is … an excellent explainer of how the tech platforms work, the drawbacks associated with them and why we need important laws and regulations,” said Steyer, the brother 2020 presidential candidate and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.
His organization has been working with Haugen for about five months, Steyer said after her legal team approached it about collaboration: “We started planning ways we could work on federal law, as well as California law, as well as mobilizing young people. people .” (Wicks used to work at Common Sense Media.)
The organization also worked with the White House to get Haugen to the State of the Union address, Steyer said.
Haugen’s lordship extends beyond the west coast. She estimates she spent about five and a half weeks in Europe helping out a groundbreaking law of the European Union — the Digital Services Act — which would force social media platforms, including Facebook, to more aggressively moderate hate speech, disinformation and other user-generated content, and ban online advertisements targeting children. Both the European Parliament and the Member States of the European Union have: agreed the contents of the DSA, although it is still subject to formal approval.
“Until the DSA’s passing, that was kind of the main focus, providing support around raising awareness,” Haugen said. She was on the scene “supporting lawmakers, testifying, meeting with various ministries” [and] meeting with other social groups,” and also wrote a New York Times op-ed in support of the law.
She has also become involved in environmental, social and governance, or ESG, efforts aimed at helping investors “have criteria for assessing whether or not social media companies are acting in a prosocial manner,” she said, and is working to establish a non-profit organization that will combine that work with support for lawsuits and educational efforts aimed at educating people about social media. Steyer said his organization has helped Haugen “incubate” her nonprofit.
It’s a rapid increase for someone who had no national profile less than a year ago.
“When I disclosed the documents to the SEC and Congress, I had no expectations of what would happen,” Haugen said. “My primary goal was that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life carrying the burden of knowing something and doing nothing.”
But for everything that’s happened since she came into the limelight — calls from the White House, European field trips, shoulder-to-shoulder with California’s political heavyweights — Haugen said the main difference she’s experienced in recent months is weight. fell from her shoulders.
“The most important thing that has changed in my life,” she said, “is that I can sleep at night.”