Date April 27, 2022
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Facebook whistleblower kicks off William R. Rhodes ’57 Lecture Series on Ethics of Capitalism

Frances Haugen told an audience of Brown students, faculty and staff that algorithms governing social media are the root of technology’s challenges — and that social media can be a positive force to keep people connected.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Society will wrestle with and ultimately solve the complex issues brought about by social media platforms such as Facebook, just as it did after the advent of other new forms of communication in history, from the printing press to the television screen.

That’s what Frances Haugen told an audience at Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts on Wednesday, April 27.

And Haugen should know — better known as the Facebook whistleblower, she worked as a product manager at the tech giant before filing a series of complaints claiming that the company misled the public on how it handles issues including climate change, misinformation, hate speech and the platform’s effect on mental health.

Since going public and leaving Facebook, Haugen has testified in front of the U.S. Congress and global government bodies, and has engaged with lawmakers internationally on how to best address the negative effects of social media platforms.

Her appearance at Brown, titled “Reforming Social Media from the Inside,” served as the inaugural event of the William R. Rhodes ’57 Lecture Series on the Ethics of Capitalism. She touched on many issues, including censorship and the danger of algorithms, and gave the audience an insider’s look of what her experience was like working for Facebook.

“I came forward because I saw that there was a very, very, very critical problem that I felt with a high degree of confidence was going to lead to continual deaths in the most fragile places in the world,” she said, expressing concern for parts of the world where many people can access data for free via Facebook or, otherwise, pay for internet service. “Our brains are triggered to pay more attention to things that scare us. Things that make us angry, things that make us go into fight or flight. The only problem there is it means the shortest path to a click is hate in its raw forms.”

Haugen made it clear that she’s not against social media but, instead, the algorithms that guide user engagement.

“My core complaint with Facebook is about engagement-based ranking, about algorithms that direct our intention instead of having humans direct our attention,” she said. “We can still have social media that connects us with people, that helps us know what's up with our family and friends but doesn't rely on algorithms to direct our attention — because unless we have hyper-vigilance on those algorithms, they're always going to be trying to accomplish things that are different from what we set out” to do.

So, what’s the solution? Haugen said she wants to work on designing simulated social network systems to test ways to improve how content is delivered.

Haugen, whose mother is a Brown alumna, gave a shout-out to Brown’s Open Curriculum and the lessons it can impart on how to safeguard society from being dominated by technology: “I think the fact that Brown has such an interdisciplinary perspective on education is an important thing for making sure the technology continues to serve us, instead of the other way around…

“If there's anything else I want to leave you guys with: We have a lot more power than we think we do,” she said. “Actually, this is the thing for everyone who is not a computer science major.”

Brown President Christina H. Paxson introduced the inaugural William R. Rhodes ’57 Lecture, a series that stemmed from an advisory committee recommendation to establish a lecture on business ethics to give the Brown community an opportunity to reflect on issues of ethical conduct of corporations.

“We're confronted with so many pressing issues as a University community — economic inequality and mass incarceration and educational access and climate change,” she said. “One of the ways we address those things at Brown is through our scholarship, through our education, through our research and ethics and businesses, certainly. And as you know, those have enormous consequences for health and well-being around the country and all around the globe. So I'm really excited about the time we have tonight with Frances Haugen to hear about all that she's doing now to address issues of ethics and social responsibility in social media.”

Professor Mark Blyth, director of the William R. Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, served as moderator and introduced Haugen.

“Frances Haugen bravely and clearly exposed how a firm that is the internet for almost half the world's population knows that it causes harm and yet refuses to do anything about it, rather than accepting that Frances fought back for all of us,” Blyth said. “This is why we invited her to give this inaugural lecture.”

During a Q&A session, a member of the audience asked Haugen about the recent news of billionaire Elon Musk taking the reins of Twitter, another social media giant: “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “He’s very methodical. He’s very data driven, and he’s willing to have hard conversations.”

Haugen wrapped up the evening likening the issues surrounding social media to those previous generations faced with the advent of communications tools such as the printing presses, radio, television and cinema.

“Every single time we've invented a new form of media we've realized our limitations,” she said. “It's our burden to fight for what's next. But the thing I want you to take away from this is we've done it every single time before. Humans are incredibly resilient.”