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Whistleblower Frances Haugen on the alliance to hold social media accountable: ‘We need to act now’

Whistleblower Frances Haugen on the alliance to hold social media accountable: ‘We need to act now’

The former Facebook manager joins the Council for Responsible Social Media, a new coalition created to press big tech to change

Frances Haugen left her role as a product manager at Facebook in 2021, bringing with her a cache of internal documents illustrating allegations of wrongdoing at the company.

But a year later, despite congressional hearings and investigations, Meta has made few meaningful changes to its policies, Haugen says, and as the US midterm elections approach, the stakes are high.

“I’m extremely concerned about the upcoming election, and I’m even more concerned about future elections,” Haugen told the Guardian. “Without transparency and without oversight, we should expect [Facebook] will not spend enough on safety – they won’t produce a level of safety that we deserve.”

Frustrated by the inaction, Haugen is one of dozens of former government officials, independent researchers and public health advocates who are joining a new bipartisan coalition that hopes to force fundamental change to the world’s major tech platforms.

Launching on Thursday, the Council for Responsible Social Media (CRSM) aims to advocate for “bipartisan solutions” and serve “a critical mechanism” in holding these companies accountable.

“The council is trying to bring together a bipartisan, diverse set of people to emphasize that these are not partisan issues,” Haugen told the Guardian. “These are common sense solutions that can make a really big difference, and we need to act now.”

Launched in partnership with political reform group Issue One, the CRSM will advocate for change in three main areas: kids, communities and national security.

Other members of the CRSM include former defense secretaries Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, former Congress members Claire McCaskill and Dick Gephardt, and former National Security Agency director Michael Rogers.

“Social media defines nearly every aspect of our social fabric and has changed the world as we know it. We can now see clearly that the companies operating these platforms have too often failed to be responsible stewards of our political, social and communications spaces,” Gephardt said.

Some 68% of Americans believe big tech firms have too much power and influence on the economy, and 56% say they should be more regulated than they are currently. But despite broad bipartisan support for action, Congress has for years failed to pass effective legislation.

The new council aims to advocate for reforms to bring more transparency and oversight to these companies, Haugen said, adding that there are several “low hanging fruits” of regulation that could be passed imminently.

That includes the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, a bill introduced in 2021 that would require social media firms to comply with researcher data requests for external audits. Under the proposed law, failure to do so could result in loss of legal protections for content hosted on their platform.

Haugen also highlighted the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill introduced in 2022 that would install more safeguards and transparency for minors using social media.

“There are a number of large opportunities today that were not on the table a year ago in terms of moving forward in a bipartisan way,” she said. “They just need a push over the finish line.”

Haugen said these protections were only growing more important as tech companies continue to expand their reach. Nearly one year ago, Facebook’s parent company officially changed its name to Meta, with its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, announcing a new focus on building out a digital world called the metaverse.

“The idea that that we’re going to let Mark Zuckerberg for a second time define a critical piece of social public infrastructure without any accountability or transparency is amazing,” she said. “He has not earned the privilege of being able to act with this level of impunity.”

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