Discussing The Facebook Whistleblower With Our Kids

Dr. Delaney Ruston – So much is going on with Facebook RIGHT NOW. The Facebook/Instagram whistleblower is testifying at this moment before the Senate. Yesterday Facebook, Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp all went down for hours for the first time ever.  

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes revealed the identity of the  Facebook whistleblower. Her name is Frances Haugen. Haugen copied thousands of pages of internal documents and shared them with the Wall Street Journal. In the 60 Minutes interview, Haugen talks about why she decided to go public with internal company documents.

Consider watching these clips from the 60 Minutes interview with your kids. The discussion questions at the end of this blog are great for sparking a conversation about the clips.  

I have immense respect for whistleblowers. The work, risks, and costs to a whistleblower are huge. Haugen secretly copied thousands of research files which clearly had lots of risks involved. Also, some of her colleagues will be angry with her — after all, her actions can lead to a decline in the company’s stock prices, and part of employee compensation might be in the form of stock prices. Another big issue is that Haugen will face legal backlash from Facebook and most likely contend with significant lawyer fees.

Other colleagues will be grateful for Haugen’s actions because many have also been frustrated and voiced concerns with the leadership about similar problems they see at Facebook and Instagram.

Why did Haugen decide to take on the heavy job of a whistleblower? Her answer resonated with me.  She talked about a good friend who turned into a conspiracist and how she feels Facebook was partly to blame. Sadly this has happened in my own family. It has happened to many, many families in our country. 

One of the key points from Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview to discuss with your kids is how Facebook and Instagram are working to keep all eyes glued to their platforms. Their internal research shows that more hateful and divisive content gets more eyeballs. To make this point, Haugen discussed some of the research Facebook did but never publicly shared. 

They did experiments in which they created a new user profile —  I’ll call the user “George” — and they had George “like” four accounts: Donald Trump, Melania, Fox News, and a local news provider. Then, they had George engage with the first ten things offered to him via Facebook by “liking” a post or joining a group. The research team found that in just one week, the platform was offering up QAnon posts, and then in another two weeks, George was served up posts about “white genocide.” This happened because Facebook uses algorithms that calculate that the more controversial posts get higher engagement.

One of the most disturbing issues from Haugen’s shared documents is evidence showing Facebook knew that Instagram could cause negative body issues for girls using their profit-centered algorithms. This is a whole topic unto itself that I will devote to an upcoming TTT.

Facebook says that they are overly blamed for polarization in the world. I agree they are not fully to blame. There are many factors at play, and no one social media giant is causing all the woes in our world. Multiple circumstances are influencing extreme divisions, such as economic inequalities and much more. Yet that said, the reach of this mammoth company is beyond comprehension, and many extremely negative things are happening with it. 

Facebook also defends itself by saying they work hard to prevent problems like disinformation on their platforms. But, Haugen, like others I have spoken with, says that Facebook is not doing enough. For example, she was on a counter-espionage team with less than ten people, and she said they needed more than ten times that to do a decent job.

I want our kids to know that Facebook often points out that people are free not to use their products, i.e.,  Facebook and Instagram. But what do we think of the fact that it also owns Facetime, Messenger, and WhatsApp, along with other ones? It is massive. 

Our kids might think that whistleblowers are only people far along their careers, but anyone can be a whistleblower.  Just two weeks ago, I watched George Shultz’s grandson, Tyler Shultz, talk about why he decided to become a whistleblower and he was in his early 20s. His decision had to do with working at Theranos when he was 23. While there, he realized the leaders were publicly lying about their product, which was incredibly upsetting to him because it was a medical device that reported lab results, and doctors and patients relied on those results, but some of the results were wrong! 

Tyler was worried about coming forward for all sorts of reasons, including his fear he might not ever get a job in a biotech company again. Fortunately, quite the opposite happened to him. He said he received multiple job offers, and I am sure it was partially because people valued his integrity.  

 Ideas to get the discussion started: 

  1. What are some whistleblowers you’ve heard about?
  2. What do you think about the reason that Frances Haugen gave about her concerns that more people are becoming conspiracy theorists in direct relation to their time spent on Facebook?
  3. Could you ever see yourself whistleblowing for something you saw at work?
  4. What do you think of the 60 Minute clips?