Pictured from left to right: Philip Eliasoph, David Schmidt, Candice Peterkin and Frances Haugen.

“I brought out about 22,000 pages of documents from Facebook by literally taking photographs of my computer screen,” said Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen yesterday in an event at Fairfield University’s Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. 

Haugen, who blew the whistle on Facebook and testified before Congress in October 2021, joined a full venue of 360 students, as well as additional faculty, staff and other guests, to speak on the concerns she encountered and revealed in her time at Facebook, as well as her thoughts on “a path forward.” The event was sponsored by the University’s Patrick J. Waide Center for Applied Ethics, in partnership with the Quick Center’s Open Visions Forum and consisted of a presentation and panel discussion.

In collaboration with the Center for Applied Ethics, Haugen also joined in conversation with a number of MBA students before the event and attended a reception at Bellarmine Hall.

“Tech companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to spread the idea that the only choice we have is between our freedom and our safety,” Haugen summarized in her remarks at the reception, “when in reality they had tens of thousands of pages of documents on […] intentional choices they had made where they had prioritized profit over safety.”

Delving into the issues more deeply in her presentation, Haugen touched on a sort of polarization brought about by big social media platforms’ profit-maximizing algorithms, whereby extreme content is bolstered in order to gain more traction. 

This extreme content does not consist of “fake facts, [but] facts that are divisive,” Haugen explained. Beyond the controversies surrounding Facebook’s alleged relatedness to “human trafficking […], depression […], anxiety […], and body image issues,” Haugen also touched on its facilitation of conflict in poor countries, where its algorithm functions without any significant oversight.

Essentially, Haugen explained that Facebook subsidizes their services in several poor countries, in which a majority of internet users use Facebook exclusively. The company, however, enforces little to no regulation on content posted in these countries. 

Haugen claimed that this “raw” version of Facebook and the polarized and violent content that it has brought about has contributed to social discontent in such countries; she cited Facebook’s relationship to conflicts in Myanmar and Ethiopia as proof.

In discussing a “path forward,” Haugen was adamant about the creation of a new culture of accountability for social media platforms, in which users are involved in moderation efforts. 

When prompted about the message she’d like students to gather from her presentation in an exclusive interview with The Rearview, Haugen shared her thoughts on the future. She said, “students need to understand today […] more and more of our economy [in the next 20 years] is going to be run by things like data centers, in chips or in opaque AIs and whistleblowers are only going to get more important.”

Touching upon Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter, Haugen stated, “Elon is representing an undercurrent that a lot of us feel right now, which is: we feel powerless.” She relayed further, stating that in the context of Facebook, “we have accepted being passive participants on this platform.”

Haugen asked audience members to “imagine a world where there was the equivalent of jury duty on social media.”

In response to Elon Musk’s concerns about freedom of speech and regulation on Twitter, Haugen expressed concern that Musk may “run up against a point of friction” in his plans because “advertisers will not spend money on systems that are too hostile, and users don’t spend time on places that make them feel bad.”

She instead suggested, “designing these systems from the ground up so that communities play a larger role in keeping them pleasant places to be,” saying further, “I think people would feel more comfortable with moderation decisions, because they would feel like they had participation in that process.”

Despite the implications and seriousness of her findings, Haugen remained hopeful in her remarks. “I do it because we can change […] We have accepted for too long that we are subjects of platforms,” she said. “It’s going to be very exciting to see where social media goes.”

Director of Applied Ethics David Schmidt “couldn’t be happier” with the event, citing its impact in the Center’s larger mission to “bring ethics into the curriculum and into the life of the University” in a “hands on” approach.

More information on the event is available on the Quick Center’s website.

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