A fervent applause greeted Frances Haugen at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts for her lecture on Nov. 1, titled “Ethics, the Public Good and the Challenge of Social Media.”
Haugen is a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower after she disclosed the company’s internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2021. That October, she testified in front of the United States Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security.
The second that Facebook became more concerned with their profit over the safety of their users, Haugen knew that change was vital.
“I could see that there was information that the public needed in order to keep itself safe,” she said. Until this secrecy was revealed, she saw no way to alter the warped patterns within social media.
Haugen’s lecture was proudly put on through the Quick Center’s Open Visions Forums, directed by Philip Eliasoph, Ph. D., a professor of Art History at Fairfield University. Eliasoph described that the motive of these Open Visions Forums is to “spark meaningful dialogue and ask timely questions about our nation.”
Although rather unexpected, the beginning of Haugen’s speech revolved around car accidents and their fatality rates. With the inclusion of graphs, she demonstrated the preliminary increase of crash fatalities in the auto world, then shifted to a graph that showed their decrease.
In a swift transition, Haugen introduced her idea of an “ecosystem of accountability.”
This particular ecosystem includes stakeholders, investors, legislators, concerned citizens and all the like: people who see the harm and make efforts to mend it.
“We aren’t kept safe just because of magical laws, or the government acts,” she explained. “People must take action, too, which increases the significant job of whistleblowers.”
In the instance of car fatalities, the Department of Public Transportation and auto companies embarked on solutions to diminish these accidents. However, the speaker noted that social media is unable to be “crash-tested” in the same way.
Media users are limited in what they see, Haugen informed. Despite only viewing the information on their own screens, databases and the backgrounds of media platforms have the ability to act upon their own standards of decency – and without question.
“Facebook could tell any story they wanted to,” Haugen said. Because people cannot see what happens behind the scenes, she expressed that doubt was rarely considered an option.
Nevertheless, doubt should obtain a heavier presence. She shared that when Facebook told the public they were removing 95% of its negative content, the company only removed three to five percent of it.
Regrettably, Haugen expects these issues to worsen in the next twenty to thirty years. She wondered, “Why is social media missing its ecosystem of accountability?”
Still, she lies hopeful for a better future.
The renowned whistleblower veered toward the disheartening reality of social media algorithms, particularly focused on the power they hold over naive media participants.
Not only does the algorithm favor content with more likes and shares, but it also tends to gravitate people toward more negative content. Haugen elaborated how, in a short period of time, results for “healthy eating” will turn into a “pro-anorexia” composition.
As she spoke, Haugen managed a light-hearted connection with her audience in the midst of a serious conversation. Through jokes, gestures and blatant relatability, a dull moment never hit her presentation, and an authentic speaker-audience relationship was built.
Haugen closed her speech with a discussion on media transparency. “Transparency is not meant to be a punishment,” she said. Additionally, she claimed “mandated transparency” would produce more effective companies with less incentive to lie.
As the country’s economy continues to move in drastic directions, and with a considerable fraction of it being run by opaque systems, Haugen stands by the necessity of whistleblowers to continue their honest, life-changing work.
Frequently, she nodded to the rising generations with praise. “Generation Z has made it clear that they want to show up as their full, authentic selves every day.”
With a similar feeling, Eliasoph stressed the foundation that students carry for these Open Visions Forums. “After all,” he said, “[our students] are the heart and soul of the university, and these events truly benefit them.”
As a generating force, the power for change rests in their hands.
The process of hosting Haugen at the Quick Center began in 2021 when the Wall Street Journal articles depicting her leap of leadership distributed themselves throughout the country.
“We’re buying a day of [her] life,” Eliasoph said about Haugen’s trek to Fairfield, Conn. He remained hopeful that students would choose not to miss this opportunity. Evidently so, he was not let down.
When questioned about her desire to speak at Fairfield University’s Quick Center, Haugen emphasized the importance of enlightening young students on the destructive effects of authoritative media.
“Building out that ecosystem of accountability is something that we’re twenty years delayed on,” she said. “Any opportunity I can to connect with students or connect with the broader community, I think it’s a really critical component.”
Haugen also made clear the lack of regret she feels toward her actions. “I really, genuinely believe there’s like ten or twenty million lives on the line,” she said. “There were no consequences that could happen to me, realistically, that would be worse than having to lay in bed at night, regretting that I didn’t do anything.”
After her ethical address, Haugen’s lecture transitioned into a panel discussion, which featured Haugen alongside Eliasoph and David Schmitt, the director of applied ethics and associate professor of ethics and business ethics, as well as Candice Peterkin ‘20, Fairfield alumni and entrepreneur.
Each panelist asked the welcomed speaker approximately three questions each, regarding similar topics of safe media behavior, leadership and advice for future whistleblowers.
In a question from Schmitt on how to remain hopeful, Haugen clarified that history has experienced several advances in communication in the past, such as the printing press and radio. However, she did not neglect that these bumps in the road always improve and that, each time, “we have learned and we have acted.”
As her time ran to a close, Haugen answered a final question, which read: “What prevents people from speaking up?”
If it had not been for her time in the COVID-19 “lockdown,” Haugen lamented that she may not have gone through with the disclosure. However, in that period of time, she had asked herself: “What do I actually need to be happy?”
Haugen explained to her packed crowd her confidence that she would still be able to make money on the internet regardless of what she did. She held her belief that there are many paths to happiness and, perhaps, people would follow their hearts more often if they knew they had the opportunity to.
University President Mark Nemec, Ph.D. had graciously introduced Haugen to the stage. His preliminary spiel concerned the university’s strong Jesuit mission, “dedicated to the fullness of truth,” which stood as a vast theme in Haugen’s talk.
He also made sure to give thanks to the Patrick J. Waide Center of Applied Ethics, the central support behind this event.
If Haugen’s goal was to inspire her audience, she certainly succeeded. Despite her grand supply of information on ethical social behavior, she ensured the simplicity of these changes, as well as their level of attainability.
In a pre-event statement, she provided one message that she hopes students and attendees will take away from her speech:
“We have to stop accepting that we are just subjects of these platforms,” she said. “There is a future where all of us will play a larger role in these platforms, and change is possible.”