This month, the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact – in collaboration with the Cecil B. Day Center for Business Ethics, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and the Center for Computing and Society – kicked off the Impact Lunchtime Talks with Frances Haugen Facebook whistleblower turned public speaker and non-profit founder. MBA student, Sarah Naumann had a change to interview her after her talk.
By Sarah Naumann, MBA ‘23
WiB Co-President, Entrepreneurship Club Vice President, and ILSI Graduate Research Assistant
This September, ILSI had the honor of kicking off our Impact Speaker Series with Frances Haugen, Facebook whistleblower turned public speaker and non-profit founder. I had the unique privilege of escorting Frances around campus for the day to her other speaking engagements, which allowed me to better understand the woman behind the microphone.
Under the weight of her unsolicited celebrity status, Frances is a normal person. And that's exactly what she wants us all to realize. We are all people experiencing ordinary, everyday lives who are also capable of stepping out courageously to correct broken systems in remarkable ways. Here are some highlights from my lunchtime chat with Frances.
Me: For you personally, was your voice something you’ve always had naturally, or was it something you’ve had to find and refine?
Frances: I’ve never had a fear of asking questions. Part of that is the difference between having a voice and having an expectation that you should be allowed to participate. I’ve never had trouble asking questions because of the concept “seek to understand.” What if you just didn’t care? (To which I exclaimed, ‘I can’t wait for that day!’) What if that day were tomorrow…or today for you? Ask questions.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid to be as great as you are? That’s actually a scary thing to admit - that you have power. Because if you have power, you have responsibility. And that’s Facebook’s fundamental problem. They don’t want to admit that they have power or control, because then they’d have to take responsibility. And we tell ourselves stories about how we’re powerless, because then we don’t have to figure out how to change things.
You must first admit that you deserve to have a voice, and you do. And then you must work on accepting that if you deserve to have a voice, then what does it look like to have a seat at the table? And if you’re not willing to clarify what you’re thinking and ask stupid questions, then you’re not really going to figure out how to claim that voice.
Me: Regarding blowing the whistle on Facebook, how did you get from knowing what you needed to do to actually doing it?
Frances: I think one of the most important things we don’t talk to young people about is that you can live thinking about your decisions for years. You can agonize over the things you did or didn’t do for years. People regret far more what they didn’t do than what they did. I looked at it, and still believe, that there are tens of millions of lives on the line. The way I viewed it was that there were very few people who could speak out because there are about 300 to 400 people in a position to do so, people from very specialized fields who are trained to design the algorithms that influence our information environment.
I thought about how long I would regret this. If you knew you could have been one of the few people to speak up and there were at least tens of millions of lives on the line, would you want to regret that for 40 to 50 years?
Me: And now you’ve made this your cause by starting your non-profit, Beyond the Screen. Talk more about that.
Frances: I don’t feel I have to do it (start a non-profit). Now it’s my choice. My vision for myself is to no longer be necessary. Any solution where I am the solution is honestly just as authoritarian as how we got to where we are with Facebook. The non-profit is centered around the idea that we need to bring a minimum of 100,000 people around the table, and then another 100,000 people globally at the next level down. If you want to have systems designed in a democratic way, that’s how many different kinds of people you need.
Me: How are you getting people to the table?
Frances: Duty of Care is an open-source project, which means it’s designed to facilitate conversations among academics on the internet. It’s articulating harms so we can agree on the problems we’re trying to solve. We don’t have a misinformation problem; we have a hyper-amplification problem and a selective-amplification problem. Misinformation is just a symptom of those problems, and Facebook did that intentionally. Articulating harms and levers, and how to pull the levers, are ways we can mitigate this.
I’ve always valued knowing how to speak in such a way that people will listen. How do you get people to talk enough to help you understand how to help them? How do you help two people see each other? People have a lot of feelings about social media – scared, confused, frustrated. They don’t know what to think. We’re talking about the design of systems. It’ll take a long time. I don’t expect to change this for years. But we also just don’t have the option not to succeed.
The encouragement that Frances left students, faculty, and community participants with that day still sticks with me. Frances is equally, if not more so, serious about her hope in a future solution as she has been when speaking about the problem.
At the end of almost every engagement on campus, there came a point when the heaviness of the topic was deeply felt in the room. And then came Frances’ encouragement. “The 20th century is a group of longshot stories coming true. The Soviet Union ended, the British left India, Indura Gandhi was the first Indian prime minister who was a woman. How did all of that happen?” Her list went on, with her point being, challenges of epic proportions arise. So do the leaders who can correct them.
The Institute for Leadership and Social Impact (ILSI) is an interdisciplinary institute that promotes servant leadership and social innovation that contribute to a more just, caring, and equitable world. Learn more about the Impact Speaker Series.