What happens once thousands of documents from the world’s most prominent social media corporation are leaked? The answer is apparent to Frances Haugen: create a youth movement.
Facebook has come under fire as a result of the whistleblower’s document leak, particularly after it was revealed that the firm was aware that its Instagram photo app had the potential to affect teen mental health.
Young people, according to ex-Facebook engineer Haugen, have more reason than anybody else to put pressure on social media firms to improve.
“I want to launch a youth movement,” she said in a wide-ranging interview with AFP, adding that young people who have grown up online should not feel “powerless” in the face of the social networks that have become so ingrained in their lives.
Haugen has been in the spotlight for nearly two months because of her assertions that Facebook has regularly put profits ahead of people’s safety, and fans and opponents alike are wondering what will happen next.
The interview, which took place on Friday in a fancy Paris hotel under the watchful eye of her lawyer, came at the end of a European tour orchestrated by a slick public relations team and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s charity organisation.
Haugen, 37, has spoken to MPs in London, Brussels, and Paris, as well as tens of thousands of people at a tech convention in Lisbon.
Both the UK and the EU are contemplating new tech rules, and she claimed the tour will give her the chance to “influence where those policies go.”
A radicalised acquaintance
Before she started working for Facebook, Iowa native Haugen was well aware that its sites might lead users down deadly rabbit holes.
In 2016, a close buddy who had become radicalised believed that billionaire George Soros was secretly controlling the economy.
“That was excruciatingly uncomfortable,” she admitted.
Despite this, Haugen worked at Facebook for two years before departing in May, citing a consistent inability to address undesirable side-effects such as spiralling hate speech in politically vulnerable nations like Myanmar as the reason for her departure.
Despite her efforts to influence European laws, Haugen’s faith in regulation is shaky: by the time legislators agree, technology will have advanced.
Instead, she wants Facebook to be legally obligated to develop policies in response to user-identified potential harms.
“Facebook has never had to explain how it plans to address problems before. When there’s a scandal, they always say the same thing: ‘we’re sorry, this is difficult, we’re working on it.’ “According to Haugen.
If Facebook were required to reveal data indicating the scope of the problem — such as the number of misleading posts with more than 1,000 shares each week, for example — she believes the business would be compelled to come up with better solutions.
“Anytime you get more sunlight, it cleans things up a little.”
Crypto ventures that are well-timed
Under the same principle, Haugen believes Facebook should be obliged to address the risks associated with its plans to build a “metaverse,” a virtual reality internet about which CEO Mark Zuckerberg is so enthusiastic that the parent company has been renamed Meta.
What may happen to people’s mental health if they spend all day in a virtual reality world where they have “a better haircut, better clothes, and a nicer apartment,” as Haugen speculates?
“I have yet to hear Facebook define how they intend to address that harm,” she said. “They’re about to put $10,000 into this project. Isn’t this a discussion we should have right now?”
She’s not shocked that Facebook’s reaction to the latest crisis has been mostly defiant rather than humble.
“Facebook was formed by a bunch of Harvard kids who’d never done anything wrong in their lives,” she claimed, implying that accepting criticism gracefully was not part of the company’s culture.
Their Harvard classmate readily confesses that she, too, is privileged: her existence in Puerto Rico is currently supported by cryptocurrency investments she made in 2015.
“In many ways, this risk is less perilous for me than it would be for someone who doesn’t have my funds,” she explained.
Haugen is currently planning a university trip for early next year.
At 37, she emphasises that her participation would be limited to launching the young movement, envisioning it as a campus-based movement in which students could assist teenagers with internet-related issues that their parents may not understand, such as app addiction.
Its broader mission would be to encourage young people to advocate businesses and legislators for a “fair and equitable social media.”
She also intends to collaborate with academics to create a “simulated social network,” a model that would allow trainee engineers to conduct experiments before implementing modifications on real-world platforms, where they could cause real-world harm.
Meanwhile, she’ll be keeping an eye on ideas for additional tech legislation.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of government regulators who say this information has completely shifted the tone of the argument,” she said. “This time, I’m hoping things will be different.”
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