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Frances Haugen's memoir details life junctures that led to Facebook whistleblower moment

Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee at the Russell Senate Office Building  on October 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images)
Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee at the Russell Senate Office Building on October 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images)

Many have heard of Frances Haugen — the Facebook whistleblower who used more than 20,000 pages of documents to reveal that the social media company knew it was using algorithms that rewarded extremism, but chose not to change them, even as its forums, pages and videos were being used to incite violence and spread lies.

She also provided evidence that the company ignored its own research about its effects on child and adolescent mental health, and largely ignored the issue of underage users. What hasn’t been reported are the moments in Haugen’s life that gave her the strength to get to that instant — including the tragic death of her childhood best friend and a debilitating illness that left her temporarily unable to work or walk.

Haugen joins host Robin Young to discuss her new memoir, “The Power of One: How I Found the Strength to Tell the Truth and Why I Blew the Whistle on Facebook.”

The cover of “The Power of One: How I Found the Strength to Tell the Truth and Why I Blew the Whistle on Facebook” by Frances Haugen. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘The Power of One’

By Frances Haugen

“Don’t worry,” the boy said, looking up at me as we rode the elevator in the United States Capitol. “I’ve been doing this for a while and even I get butterflies sometimes.” His words startled me out of my controlled breathing, a calming exercise I’ve found helps center me when I feel anxious. From the moment we had exited the White House and boarded the shuttle that whisked us to the Capitol, I felt as if I had stepped onto a steadily building escalator of anxiety and I didn’t know how to get off. It was March 1, 2022, the evening of President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union Address. Only five days before, Russia had invaded Ukraine. It occurred to me that the speech would draw even more attention than usual, as people wondered whether Biden might declare war on Russia. My heart was racing.

I glanced down at the boy, Joshua Davis. He wore a dapper dark blue suit, sapphire- blue tie, his blond hair parted on the side. The bespectacled thirteen-year-old emanated the poise of a seasoned ambassador. Which, in a way, he was. Diagnosed with diabetes as a baby, by the time Joshua was in kindergarten he had become something of a national spokesman on behalf of people with the disease. He had most recently been calling on the drug companies to make insulin affordable to all who needed it. Joshua “was clearly comfortable at the center of attention, and he was clearly perceptive, as he could see that I most definitely was not at ease.

I had entered what became a spotlight just six months earlier, blowing the whistle on Facebook in a very public way, and testifying to Congress and elsewhere about the many routes by which the platform had become a source of misinformation and a spark plug for political violence. The company knew it was happening, but they prioritized profits over public safety.

The irony was not lost on me that I was now being reassured by a junior high student one third my age. I had a flash of a thought of how different we were: Joshua had spoken before the Virginia General Assembly at the age of four, urging them to pass a bill making schools safer for kids with Type 1 diabetes. When I was four years old, I was building wooden boxes only a mother could love, with real saws and hammers at my Montessori preschool. Up until six months before, when I revealed my identity on 60 Minutes, I had spent my entire life avoiding the spotlight, to the point of having eloped to a Zanzibarian beach for my first marriage. In the fifteen-plus years since college, I’ve had maybe two birthday parties. My mind is wired to think in terms of data and spreadsheets, and according to my rough estimate, Joshua had been in the public eye for 70 percent of his life, whereas I had only been in the spotlight for less than 1.5 percent of mine.

We were among a handful of people that night who had been invited as guests of the First Lady. Being invited to sit in the First Lady’s box meant the president of the United States would cite each of us in his address, humanizing symbols of his agenda. I had been invited because I was “the Facebook whistleblower.” I had extracted 22,000 pages of documents from inside the social media company where I had worked on the Civic Misinformation team and then with Counter-Espionage. I not only worked to ensure that all of the technical and terrible facts in those documents made it into the public sphere, but by the time of the State of the Union, I had spent months on the road to make sure the public understood what they really meant.

I had made it through my public appearances thus far, including a debut on 60 Minutes and testifying to a string of congressional and parliamentary committees around the world, by focusing on the presentation of the substance of the documents. I clung to an anxiety- relieving conceit that I was, as a friend coached me, “just a conduit for the documents.” My purpose was to provide clarity and context; my physical presence was incidental to that. It wasn’t about me, it was about the information the world needed to know. This State of the Union, though, felt different. For this appearance, my purpose more or less was just to be there. To be looked at. When the President of the United States gave me my cue, I was to stand before the nation, before the world, and just be seen.

Shorn of my protective mantra, my heart was racing. “Thank you, you’re so kind,” I said to Joshua as we emerged into the marble-lined corridors of the Capitol and headed toward the balcony of the House of Representatives Chamber.

Excerpted from “The Power of One: How I Found the Strength to Tell the Truth and Why I Blew the Whistle on Facebook.” Published by  Little, Brown & Company. Copyright © 2023 by Frances Haugen. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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