Less than two years after Facebook hired Frances Haugen to help correct dangerous distortions spilling across its platform, she had seen enough. The idealism she and countless others had invested in promises by the world’s most extensive social network to fix itself had been woefully misplaced. She concluded that the harm Facebook and sibling Instagram were doing to users was rivaled only by the company’s resistance to change. And the world beyond Facebook needed to know. When the 37-year-old data scientist went before Congress and the cameras last week to accuse Facebook of pursuing profit over safety, it was likely the most consequential choice of her life.
And for a still-young industry that has mushroomed into one of society’s most powerful forces, it spotlighted a rising threat: The era of the Big Tech whistleblower has most definitely arrived.
“There has just been a general awakening amongst workers at the tech companies asking, `What am I doing here?’” Jonas Kron of Trillium Investment Management has pushed Google to increase protection for employees who raise the alarm about corporate misdeeds.
“When you have hundreds of thousands of people asking that question, you’ll inevitably get more whistleblowing,” he said.
Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Haugen is by far the most visible of those whistleblowers. And her accusations that Facebook’s platforms harm children and incite political violence ― backed up by thousands of pages of the company’s own research ― may well be the most damning.
But she is just the latest to join in a growing list of workers from across tech determined to speak out. Nearly all are women, and observers say that’s no coincidence.
Even after making inroads, women and especially women of color remain outsiders in the heavily male tech sector, said Ellen Pao, an executive. She sued Silicon Valley investment firm Kleiner Perkins in 2012 for gender discrimination.
That status positions them to be more critical and see “some of the systemic issues in a way that people who are part of the system and who are benefiting from it the most and who are entrenched in it, may not be able to process” she said.