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Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen Regrets Nothing

“I haven’t called my mom enough, that’s definitely true,” former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower Frances Haugen told me on a recent summer Friday. Other than that? She doesn’t have many big regrets. 

Haugen is dialing in from a moving car: Such is life on the public-speaking circuit, where she has spent much of the last two years since going public as the former employee whose disclosures so tanked the credibility of the company in question that you now know it by its rebranded name, Meta. 

But for old time’s sake—and to preserve the historicity of Facebook still being Facebook back in 2021, when Haugen shared tens of thousands of internal documents detailing the platform’s systemic toxicity-for-profit mindset—Haugen and I both avoid that shiny new name throughout our conversation about the ensuing years of post–“Facebook Files” fallout. If we’re getting picky about regrets, Haugen, who resides in Puerto Rico these days, does wish she could have convened a broader consortium of journalists sooner to unpack the documents for the world. Otherwise, she’s glad we’re all here now, at this point in time when the danger of unregulated social media is such a public concern that even the surgeon general is getting involved

“We’re talking about a culture-change issue, right?” Haugen reminds me when I press for any conclusive sense of societal progress made. She’s thinking of this juncture now as our potential parallel to the seatbelts discourse of the 1960s—and how it took concerted effort, particularly from one individual, Ralph Nader (from whom Haugen clearly draws personal inspiration), to pressure corporate forces to implement safety measures we now take for granted. “Back in 1965, the average person did not know that we could live in a world where we set steadily improving standards for car safety,” Haugen says. 

This is the central theme of her work via her nonprofit, Beyond the Screen, as well as her memoir, The Power of One, published this week by Little, Brown and Company that this could be our seatbelts moment, where we finally demand a basic degree of consumer safety from the increasingly opaque tech platforms bending our reality to their whims—and one day, we’ll look back and shake our heads and wonder how it couldn’t have been more obvious.

In conversation with Vanity Fair, Haugen discusses how she feels about the past two years of tech oversight, why she’s not as nervous about the advent of AI as you might think, the one stipulation she has for maybe even returning to Facebook one day, and why she thinks it’s worth saving at all. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Vanity Fair: How do you feel about the timing of your memoir? We’re at quite an interesting point in the public’s relationship with social media.

Frances Haugen: I was blindsided last week when the Surgeon General issued the advisory around teen mental health and social media. Like, two years ago, I was just leaving Facebook. I doubt either you or I thought there was any chance this was in the near term future. It really symbolizes for me that we are seeing an interesting moment culturally. 

One of the things that I think most people aren’t aware of is that the Surgeon General has issued very few advisories, maybe less than 15 in the last 60 years, about the things that we take for granted now. It’s things like, seatbelts save lives. Smoking causes cancer. Breastfeeding is good for babies. Real mom and apple pie kind of stuff. Those advisories act as the period at the end of a sentence. 

I worry a little bit that we’re reaching an inflection point where we can pass sensible moderate laws, like the Digital Services Act in the European Union, or we can start passing emotional and extreme laws, like straight up banning TikTok. I really hope my book can play a role in shaping the conversation around what our options are. Is there a third way, you know, that’s not a Chinese approach, but also not the laissez faire approach that got us to where we are right now?

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