It was the biggest Facebook scandal after the Cambridge Analytica furore, and now the person at the centre of it all, former employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen, is coming to Cambridge to give her version of events.
Ms Haugen, a data engineer, went public last year with tens of thousands of Facebook’s internal documents which she handed over to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and The Wall Street Journal, which published the leaks as ‘The Facebook Files’ series.
During her time at Facebook, Ms Haugen had become increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritising their own profits over public safety and putting people’s lives at risk. As a last resort and at great personal risk, she made the courageous decision to blow the whistle on Facebook.
The documents portrayed a dark and dystopian company in which founder Mark Zuckerberg “has unilateral control over 3 billion people”. The Iowa-born scientist called for urgent regulation to hold the tech company’s management to account for the harm its social media platform is doing to society.
She said at the time that “there is no will at the top to make sure these systems are run in an adequately safe way” and added: “Until we bring in a counterweight, these things will be operated for the shareholders’ interest and not the public interest.”
The former Facebook employee then travelled to London in October 2021 to meet the Online Safety Bill committee in London. There, she told MPs that Facebook is “unquestionably making hate worse”, and added that Facebook’s safety teams are under-resourced, not least because “Facebook has been unwilling to accept even little slivers of profit being sacrificed for safety”.
She warned that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is “more dangerous than other forms of social media” because it is visual and “is about social comparison and about bodies”.
On Friday, for the first time, Ms Haugen will appear in Cambridge. Her warnings carry even more weight in the light of recent geopolitical events and the release of the Facebook Files, Frances comes to Cambridge, to shed light on big tech’s role in foreign interference and counter espionage, and explore how we can build trust in our digital ecosystems.
The Facebook whistleblower will be in conversation at the University of Cambridge with Prof Gina Neff, executive director, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, and Prof John Naughton, chair, advisory board, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, and Observer tech columnist. The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is an independent team of academic researchers at the University of Cambridge, radically rethinking the power relationships between digital technologies, society and our planet.
Titled ‘Frances Haugen: Can we trust tech?’ the talk will see her shed new light on big tech’s role in national security, foreign interference and the global disparity in trust in digital technology.
Frances Haugen told the Cambridge Independent: “I’m excited to be in Cambridge to meet with students and faculty on May 20. Leading academic institutions like Cambridge play a critical role in educating future technologists, regulators, lawmakers and activists.
“If we are serious about a future where social media companies are more transparent, democratically accountable and centre their work on safety, not profit, we need to make ensure these values are embedded into our education systems.”
Prof Neff said: “We are thrilled to be hosting whistleblower Frances Haugen here in Cambridge, as she sheds new light on big tech’s role in national security, foreign interference and the global disparity in trust in digital technology.
“Here at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, we are exploring how digital technology is transforming society and working toward democratic accountability over the increasing power of tech across the globe. We know that public values should play a bigger role in the tech that we use every day. Our discussions with Frances will point to how we can get there.”
The event starts at 5pm Friday and lasts one hour. It will take place at the Babbage Lecture Theatre, New Museums Site, on Pembroke Street.