Whistleblowing requires courage, but don’t expect Facebook to change its ways

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

If you wanted a paragon of astute, thoroughly modern whistleblowing, then Frances Haugen is your woman. She is the former Facebook employee who revealed that the company knew about the harm that some of its products, especially Instagram, were causing but did little or nothing about them because it prioritised growth and revenue above all else.

A good CV is essential to establish your street cred and Haugen ticks all the Silicon Valley boxes. A degree in electrical engineering? Check. An MBA from Harvard? Check. Specialised in algorithmic management? Check. Experience with, and knowledge of, ranking algorithms at a number of tech companies? Check (Google, Pinterest, Yelp). And of course you’ll have held down a substantial position in the company about which you are blowing the whistle. Again, Haugen ticks that box: at Facebook, she was the lead product manager on the civic misinformation team, which dealt with issues of democracy and misinformation; she later worked on counterespionage.

And, finally, you need to come out with lots of incriminating evidence from your former employer. Haugen has done that too. In that sense, the whistleblower she most resembles is Edward Snowden who, when he broke cover in the summer of 2013, also came away with a remarkable trove of documents from his former employer, the National Security Agency (NSA). But after her exit from Facebook, Haugen has been able to do things that Mr Snowden wasn’t free to do in 2013.

So what does whistleblowing 2.0 look like? Well, having “exfiltrated” thousands of internal documents and left the organisation, you need to have a game plan for extracting maximum public value from your courageous decision to go public. In an ideal world, you would have a media adviser lined up (it’s not clear whether Haugen had one). You’ll also need a website (which she has).

Then you’ll need to team up with some heavyweight mainstream media outlets that will make sure that your message doesn’t get drowned out by the slanderous effusions from your former employer – and provide them with a good cache of the documents so that they can assess them and plan a drip-feed of juicy bits over a few days. For her part, Haugen signed up with the Wall Street Journal and the 60 Minutes network TV documentary strand, both of which did her proud.

The political will to tackle Facebook’s astonishingly profitable abuse is still missing

You’ll also need to give some of the documents to selected legislators and regulators, so that they can work up a lather of curiosity and righteous indignation. And when they schedule hearings on your revelations you will, of course, attend and be a star witness. This will then trigger similar invitations to testify in other jurisdictions, all of which you will gladly accept. And by doing all this you will dramatically improve the chances that the world will hear of the skullduggery that your ex-employer had been getting up to.

Oh – and one more thing: it’s important to have some kind of positive message, lest a cynical world should conclude that you are as bitter and twisted as your former employers stoutly allege. Haugen ticks that box too: “Frances fundamentally believes,” states her website, “that the problems we are facing today with social media are solvable. We can have social media that brings out the best in humanity.”

If this sounds like criticism of Haugen, it isn’t meant to be. Anyone who thinks that whistleblowing is easy has never done it. Speaking truth to power requires courage, determination and the ability to weather media storms and she has demonstrated all three virtues. The bigger question is whether whistleblowing does any good even when it is accomplished as skilfully as she has managed it to date. Does it lead to meaningful change?

Take Snowden’s case. His revelations were genuinely sensational, revealing the astonishing scale and comprehensiveness of the NSA’s (and its allies’) electronic surveillance. It was clear that the democratic oversight of this surveillance in a range of western countries had been woefully inadequate in the post-9/11 years.

Related: Facebook plans to change its name as part of company rebrand – report

The revelations triggered inquiries in many of those countries, but what actually happened? In the US, very little. In the UK, after three separate inquiries, there was a new act of parliament – the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which replaced inadequate oversight with slightly less inadequate oversight and gave the security services a set of useful new powers.

Will it be any different with the Haugen revelations? My hunch is no, because the political will to tackle Facebook’s astonishingly profitable abuse is still missing. Haugen’s “testimony tour” (she comes to parliament here on Monday) will make for great copy and legislative grandstanding. But her revelations will “have zero impact on regulation. No new laws, no new regulations, no new challenges worth a damn,” writes Os Keys in Wired.

The idea that when the truth gets out, good things happen – that regulators and corporate executives and legislators are ultimately just dependent on the right information to ensure justice is done – is a myth. Which is why the only regimes capable of taming companies such as Facebook are autocracies. And we’re not there – yet.

What I’ve been reading

Use and abuse
Performative: How the Meaning of a Word Became Corrupted is lovely little essay by Wilfred M McClay in The Hedgehog Review.

Not the first time
Facebook’s Fall from Grace Looks a Lot Like Ford’s is an intriguing historical reflection by Mar Hicks in Wired.

Too much of a good thing
On the Internet, We’re Always Famous is a long New Yorker essay by Chris Hayes on the futility of overuse of the internet.

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