Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: ‘The era of’ just trust us ‘is over’

Breakfast with Time. Internet platforms are already having a hard time monitoring excesses, so the Facebook whistleblower fears for the security of the metaverse. But she is not pessimistic.

Frances Haugen is still standing in front of the stove as she participates in the Teams conversation. Her voice is barely audible over the simmering pan of scrambled eggs and spinach. “Give me a few more minutes,” she says, before suddenly walking away. When she does not show up again much later, she sits perfectly framed and with extra light in front of the computer camera, her steaming plate in front of her. The time is 10.00 in Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, where the whistleblower who hung up Facebook’s dirty laundry has been living for some time. She drinks iced coffee and guava juice for her breakfast, while at my slightly less exotic location I stick to one last coffee and an apple, six hours later in the day.

Breakfast with De Tijd

San Juan / Antwerp, at 10/16, via Teams.

With Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, we talk about doomsday-scrolling teens, an inclusive metavers, and being able to sleep again.

The 37-year-old American became world famous when, in late September 2021, she came into the spotlight as a former employee of Facebook (now Meta), which shared gigabytes of internal reports with media and authorities in a well-orchestrated campaign. The conclusion of these thousands of pages: The company over Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp is well aware of the real problems on their platforms – such as the lack of control over hate speech outside English-speaking countries – but covers them. The perception that remains is that the largest social media company puts profit over people.

Since then, Haugen has been a face for the movement fighting against big tech’s omnipotence and for fairer and more secure social media. She is not a crusade against social media, she emphasizes, but against what they have become. To keep growing, Facebook had to keep people on the platform longer. Complex algorithms emerged that serve people with the content that gets the most engagement and that nurtured negativity. Facebook was once a platform for friends and family. We were shown content that we chose ourselves, from people we know, and from groups and sites we deliberately followed. But it has slipped into something completely different. “

For her, it’s always about the question: do we want computers to focus our attention on something, or do we want people to do it? ‘If we choose computers, the built-in biases in the algorithms will give the most extreme statements the greatest range. We need to design social media around the patterns of human communication. We may have software that helps us connect but does not try to keep us busy for as long as possible and feed us bad content. “

So a better version is possible, says Haugen. There is even very low-hanging fruit. For example, she suggests helping people, especially young people, curb their Instagram use by lowering the platform from a set point of view, thereby encouraging users to go to bed earlier so they do not doomscroll at night. ‘. “There is a public health crisis going on among children. I was talking recently at my old high school, and the principal explained to me what his biggest problem is: an Instagram account with videos of kids fighting. He can not convince Meta to remove that page. Ditto with accounts where anonymous rumors are posted. What’s more: Instagram directs kids to these accounts because the algorithm recommends them. It would be a good start for a company like Meta to show that it respects the dignity of users. That it says: I recognize you as a person, not as a product to sell ads with. ‘

Shortly after Haugen became public, Facebook transformed into Meta, and Mark Zuckerberg’s company opened a marketing salvo around his vision of the future of the metaverse. Haugen is skeptical. ‘Meta already has a hard time keeping its unambiguous platforms secure. How about a combination of hundreds, thousands of apps that form the meta-verse? When Meta opened its virtual world Horizon late last year, there was an instant incident where a woman was bullied. After only a few days, they had to build in security barriers. Then you wonder: had no one thought of this, were there no women on the development team? ‘

The Meta verse is worth $ 20 billion, according to Meta. So we take them pretty seriously.

Frances Haugen

Facebook Whistleblower

Let’s not forget that the meta-verse is an expression from ‘Snowcrash’, a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson. The picture there is gloomy. People feel so miserable that they retreat into a virtual world. Still, the meta-verse is worth $ 20 billion, according to Meta. So we take that pretty seriously. My fear is that if we see them as something innocent, then in ten years’ time we will suddenly realize that an entire generation of teenagers has stopped hanging out with friends in real life. Learning to make friends or flirt can be awkward, but it’s a basic experience. Should they instead make interchangeable friends thousands of miles away? ‘

Start metaversing

What exactly is the metaverse? How will it change our lives and work? In addition to participating in exclusive parties, can you also invest, build and invest there? Who sets the rules in this new virtual world? Which Belgian companies have already discovered the possibilities in the meta-verse? De Tijd guides you through the meta verse with articles and podcasts. Follow everything in our ‘Start to metaverse’ file.

But Haugen does not want to be pessimistic. “It is now possible to do it right and develop the meta-verse for people, in an inclusive way. Then everyone benefits. If we do not have that intention, we will still have software optimized for profit, not the public interest. To do that, more people need to know how the algorithms work. ‘

That’s why she’s so hopeful about the sexy but “historic” Digital Services Act (DSA). The law, which the EU agreed on at the end of April, and which Haugen helped to promote, obliges, among other things, the large tech companies to be more transparent about their products and to show why they have certain priorities. contents. “Until now, we have never had the right to ask questions and get an independent answer. We have always had to trust the information they provide, and they obviously have an interest in not telling us the whole truth. The days of ‘just trust us’ are over.’

Haugen’s life has changed radically since she left her job as product manager at Facebook. Since calling herself a whistleblower, she has spoken to MPs from Washington to Berlin to Brussels and was named by Joe Biden in her State of the Union speech: “Frances Haugen has shown that we must hold social media accountable for the national experiment, that’s happening. ” they run on our children for profit. “Her polished campaign has also been criticized, with the help of PR firms with strong ties to the Democratic Party.

‘Ah. Facebook’s communications team tried to portray me as a vehicle for the Democrats. By the way, my communication team did not come on board until two days before the first articles about the documents appeared in the press. And yet it is one big PR machine? What I find interesting: why should anyone from the left or right think that transparency for platforms is bad? I do not think enough people care about these matters. If so, I keep quiet. I do not do it for attention. I mean, I live here in paradise, I’d rather be on the beach. ”

In recent weeks, an unlikely revolution on Twitter, forever the little brother of her former employer, came to the news. Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk made an offer on the messaging platform for the blue bird, which he has since put on hold due to ambiguity about fake accounts.

Haugen surprisingly gives the potential new owner the benefit of the doubt. ‘I’m cautiously optimistic. Elon is flamboyant and candid. But if you want to send a rocket to Mars, you have to be able to ask difficult questions and accept difficult answers. You can not succeed in firing rockets unless you are really willing to look very closely at a problem. Mark (Zuckerberg, ed.) Does not have that ‘.

According to Haugen, Twitter will be private again. Elon has said he wants to be transparent about the algorithms and remove bots. As a public company, Twitter never had an interest in it because fewer bots mean fewer users and therefore less value. Facebook would also benefit from a stock market exit. These platforms are utilities, they support our information environment and our democracy. I’m a little worried he will not take things like intimidation and bullying, especially women, seriously enough. ‘

I give Elon Musk the benefit of the doubt.

Frances Haugen

Facebook Whistleblower

For Haugen, it is especially important that many more people understand the machinery behind social media, and that adequate instruction is given in specific computer science. She will commit to this, among other things by establishing an organization that will build an open source simulated social network on which to experiment. “More people really need to understand how the algorithms work so that they can advise politicians, for example. That so few people understand how algorithms interact today is unacceptable for a democracy. ‘

She is happy with the influence she has had so far. “When I came out, I had low expectations. All I wanted was to get along with myself and not be complicit in lies. I want to be able to sleep at night. It is certainly a goal that I have succeeded one hundred percent in. ‘

‘Out there, the impact is much greater than in my wildest dreams. People from across the spectrum tell me that I helped ensure that a law like the DSA was finally passed. In the United States, for the first time in 25 years, a bill on the monopoly of tech companies has been passed by a Senate committee. Senator Amy Klobuchar said it was partly due to my revelations, which have brought an end to the era of just trusting us. It’s an incredible feeling. ‘

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