For almost a month now the public has been fed a series of so-called leaks from Facebook via The Wall Street Journal. Dubbed, The Facebook Files, this multi-part series investigating the internal machinations of the social media company was made possible by “internal Facebook documents, including research reports, online employee discussions, and drafts of presentations to senior management” provided to the outlet by a former employee who, until this week, was anonymous.
The stories in The Wall Street Journal detailed topics including the special treatment given to establishment figures by Facebook, the negative effects that Instagram has on teenage girls, the negative impact that Facebook has on the emotional well-being of its users, and how the company’s platforms facilitate human trafficking. Though none of this information is new, having all been confirmed previously (here, here, and here) or easily surmised by anyone aware of how social media is weaponized against its users, ire against the social media giant has been raised once again thanks to the documents shared by the whistleblower.
Then, on October 3, on the eve of the of the 15th anniversary of the launch of Wikileaks.org, Frances Haugen revealed herself to be the anonymous whistleblower on 60 Minutes. Previously Haugen had worked for Google, Yelp, and Pinterest so was undoubtedly familiar with undemocratic practices common in the tech world but, up until her time with Facebook, hadn’t had her faith in democracy shaken. In her interview with 60 Minutes, she told the world that, “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook.”
In that same interview, Frances Haugen explains that she was recruited by Facebook in 2018 but would only take the job on the condition that “she could work against misinformation because she had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.” Her wish was granted when she was assigned to Civic Integrity which “worked on risks to elections including misinformation.” While working as a member of the Civic Integrity team in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential (S)election, Haugen was disappointed that that systems that Facebook had put in place to mitigate the flow of “misinformation” weren’t robust enough and when most of them were disabled after the election she felt that the reduction in censorship and propaganda was a “betrayal of democracy.”
Two days ago, Haugen went in front of the Senate, specifically the Senate Commerce Committee’s Sub-Committee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, to ask for the government to step into the fray with the tech behemoth. “Congress can change the rules Facebook plays by and stop the harm it is causing. I came forward, at great personal risk, because I believe we still have time to act. But we must act now,” she pleaded. In other words, the government needs to regulate social media companies like Facebook to better control the exchange of information on the Internet. Haugen also asked for the Senate to demand more internal documents from Facebook and hinted that there was more to come from her as well.
Haugen’s case has been taken up by Whistleblower Aid, a non-profit legal organization comprised of a small team of D.C. insiders. CEO, Libby Liu is the former President of the CIA broadcasting venture Radio Free Asia and in 2020 was terminated as President of the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit tied to Radio Free Asia whose work and mission curiously aligns with the State Department’s. Founding Legal Parter, Mark Zaid and former criminal investigator with the DoD and CIA, Andrew Bakaj were recently in the news as members of the legal team representing the “whistleblower” behind the completely insane and manipulated political spectacle known as Ukrainegate.
Then there’s John Tye, the organization’s founder and Chief Disclosure Officer, whatever that means, who is acting very publicly as Frances Haugen’s attorney. Tye himself is portrayed as the poster boy for whistleblowing-done-right. Rather than disseminate information to the public, Tye’s disclosures amount an internal complaint made at the State Department and an op-ed he wrote in 2014 in the CIA-connected Washington Post to air his grievances regarding the NSA’s signals intelligence activities as permitted by Executive Order 12333. Keep in mind that this all happened in the wake of the Snowden disclosures which means Tye’s actions were hardly groundbreaking. Tye voluntarily left the State Department and has never faced any repercussions or condemnation for his actions.
This story will continue to unfold as more information comes to light but rather than follow the twists and turns let’s dissect a key part of it and move on. But first, for anyone using Facebook, Instagram, or Whatsapp, stop using those platforms and this story will immediately lose almost all relevance.
Now, the key part of the story: Frances Haugen isn’t a whistleblower in any meaningful sense of the word. Despite the media’s heroic portrayal her status as a whistleblower is only skin deep. The Government Accountability Project defines a whistleblower as:
Someone, typically an employee, who discloses information, either internally (to managers, organizational hotlines, etc.) or externally (to lawmakers, regulators, the media, watchdog organizations, etc.), that he or she reasonably believes evidences:
- a violation of law, rule or regulation;
- gross mismanagement;
- a gross waste of funds;
- abuse of authority; or
- a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
What this definition doesn’t account for are the ramifications these whistleblowers face for coming forward. This is how we separate the real from the contrived.
While Frances Haugen meets the basic criteria as an employee, albeit a former one, who has shared information with the government and media that she believes to be detrimental to public health and safety, she has taken zero risk in coming forward. Haugen had the luxury of being able to quit her well-paying job, work with The Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes to build the mainstream narrative, cement her narrative further on a brand new Wikipedia page, post from an instantly verified Twitter account, go to Capitol Hill for a hearing where the government is already on her side, and then cash out a GoFundMe for legal fees so as not to have to spend a dime of her own money coming forward.
Compare this to the story of someone like former diplomat, Michael Springmann who was the head of the American visa bureau in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from September 1987 through March 1989. During that time Springmann became a part of of the State Department’s scheme to approve visas for recruits of Osama bin Laden so they could enter the U.S. to receive training from the CIA. When he raised his concerns internally he was fired. His book on the subject, Visas for Al Qaeda did not garner him rave reviews in the New Yorker or grant him access to the mainstream press. Unlike Haugen or Tye, Springmann and his story are largely unknown to the public.
John Kiriakou, a CIA analyst and media talking head, actually spent time in prison for his revelations. Kiriakou disclosed classified information regarding the CIA’s torture program that developed in the wake of September 11, 2001. Kiriakou was an insider from top to bottom but nonetheless was compelled to disclose what he knew which greatly angered the executive branch and CIA who spent the next six years pursuing a case against him. Eventually Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He was released in 2015.
More recently, real whistleblower and former Air Force member Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison for leaking 17 documents to The Intercept in February 2014. The documents revealed information about U.S. kill lists and civilian casualties of drone strikes. At his sentencing, U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady said that Hale must be prosecuted for the leak went beyond his “courageous and principled” position on the drone war. “You are not being prosecuted for speaking out about the drone program killing innocent people,” said O’Grady. “You could have been a whistleblower…without taking any of these documents,” he somehow surmised.
These men are not without their faults. Each of them served either in the military or with intelligence agencies and helped the establishment encroach on the liberty’s of people around the world or outright killed them in Hale’s case. The point here is that their decisions to blow the whistle went against the establishment and, if nothing else, did a lot of damage on the PR-front.
Peripheral to whistleblowers are the journalists who work with them. Their fates are often indicators of just how damaging a story is to the establishment. Daphne Caruana Galizia who worked on the Panama Papers was killed when a car bomb was detonated in her rental car. Michael Hastings, who worked with Wikileaks to report on the Department of Homeland Security’s surveillance of the Occupy Wall Street movement, was killed when his car crashed under very suspect circumstances. While death is certainly not wished upon the writers at The Wall Street Journal or 60 Minutes it seems highly improbable that their coverage of a story such as Haugen’s will cause them any issues from the establishment.
At the end of it all, Frances Haugen is more of what you might call an Officially Sanctioned Whistleblower. Someone who comes forward with information already known to the public which helps the state and its cronies in the so-called private sector. Her whistleblowing has not put her or her associates in harm’s way and, as this story progresses, we will most likely find that her actions only tighten the noose around free speech.