In a lesser-noticed but revealing portion of Frances Haugen’s stage-managed PR tour last week, the vaunted “Facebook Whistleblower” took a moment to show off her “national security” credentials for Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. After the two had finished rehearsing all the reasons why American children are at such grave risk from a dangerously unregulated internet, they pivoted to another topic — that being Haugen’s previous experience at Facebook working in what she describes as “counter-espionage” operations. Yes, you read that right: Haugen was apparently a “project manager” at something called the “threat intelligence org,” located deep in the bowels of Facebook, at which she claims to have presided over a team carrying out “counter-espionage” ops on behalf of Mark Zuckerberg.
“I believe Facebook’s consistent understaffing of the counter-espionage information operations, and counter-terrorism teams, is a national security issue,” Haugen warned, agreeing with Sullivan about the Facebook-based threat posed by state actors such as China and Iran. (What kind of Facebook-related espionage is she referring to exactly? Unclear. Perhaps sardonic Ayatollah memes.)
“I believe the fact that Congress doesn’t get a report of exactly how many people are working on these things internally is unacceptable,” Haugen continued. “Because you have a right to keep the American people safe.”
And there Haugen revealed a major reason why she has been treated to such effusive “bipartisan” praise ever since she burst onto the scene last week with a superbly choreographed 60 Minutes special. On top of her argument that Facebook must more aggressively regulate political speech — and her calls for the Federal Government to more aggressively involve itself in these speech regulation activities — Haugen is also fluent in the BS-infused jargon of “natsec,” thus making her appear Extremely Serious. This is quite crucial. She’s naturally adept at rattling off impressive-sounding terms like “threat intelligence org,” the mere mention of which elicits nods of solemn affirmation from lawmakers, think tankers, and other similarly Serious individuals who gather to be imparted with her incredible wisdom.
“I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today,” Haugen told Sen. Dick Blumenthal (D-CT), who then pledged to hold additional hearings exploring this other facet of Haugen’s alleged “whistleblowing.”
The title of “whistleblower” was bestowed so swiftly onto Haugen because it’s intended to confer virtue and selflessness, and by dint of being unanimously labeled a “whistleblower,” Haugen attains a kind of saintly moral status. But notice that “whistleblowers” only seem to receive this kind of coordinated official endorsement if they are telling powerful factions exactly what they want to hear, and Haugen has done just that. Once the saintly status is attained, questioning her motives or political prescriptions is deemed sacreligious. Try to find a single establishment orthodoxy as regards “Big Tech” and speech regulation that Haugen’s statements have undercut rather than strengthened, and you will come away empty-handed. Nevertheless, her trailblazing nobility has been extolled throughout the media and in Congress, with hardly a critical word even whispered.
“You are a 21st century American hero,” effused Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). “She is courageous, authoritative, and utterly convincing,” gushed Johana Bhuiyan, the Guardian’s chief tech reporter. (How much “courage” does it really take to waltz into the spotlight with a guarantee of mandatory adulation? Does anyone think that Haugen hasn’t already been deluged with further lucrative employment opportunities? What great sacrifices has she made, exactly? She’s even been invited back to address Facebook itself, notwithstanding the mortal danger one would have thought she faces as a “whistleblower.”)
“A lot of the coverage has been really, really positive,” Haugen reported at a Zoom event hosted by Yale Law School last week, and boy is she ever right. You’d almost think Haugen is an angelic figure who descended from the heavens, and not someone whose image has been finely-crafted by a professional PR operation, which just so happened to perfectly orchestrate her primetime TV debut as a lead-in for her hotly anticipated Senate testimony. She even touts herself explicitly as a “whistleblower,” which is kind of strange — usually “whistleblowers” just kind of humbly and even reservedly accept that title, rather than turning it into a multi-platform branding exercise. Then again, it’s also strange that Twitter had a coveted “blue check” waiting for her right as her 60 Minutes segment aired:
She also participated in a meeting with the European Commission last week and will soon be called to testify before the UK Parliament. Has any other “whistleblower” ever gotten such over-the-top Red Carpet treatment? If a “whistleblower” is immediately feted and glorified by the world’s most powerful institutions, perhaps “whistleblower” is not the most apt term.
“Functionary” might work better. Indeed, Haugen has conceded that she doesn’t even have an inherent problem with the massive power wielded by Facebook, she just thinks that power ought to be wielded more judiciously — in accordance with her political and cultural priorities — with the help of government regulators. “As an algorithmic specialist... I’m actually against the breaking up of Facebook,” she said at the Senate hearing last week. What she wants instead is a government jobs program for revolving-door functionaries such as herself. “There needs to be a regulatory home where someone like me could do a tour of duty after working at a place like [Facebook], and have a place to work on things like regulation,” Haugen implored. Creating a new regulatory agency where amateur Philosopher Kings like Haugen can comfortably ponder how to define “the common good,” a phrase she constantly uses as though she’s one of history’s great ethicists? And contemplate what speech should and should not be allowed on the internet? Don’t worry, Haugen would like you to know that the creation of this new Federal body is not, in fact, a “political” recommendation.
Because like any effective campaigner seeking to achieve a political outcome, Haugen insists that she is stridently non-political. “I don’t view this as a political issue,” Haugen has insisted in regards to her “whistleblowing.” Of course, that’s also music to the ears of the powerful actors she’s ingratiating herself to, because if she had a straightforwardly partisan motive, she’d be much easier to criticize and wouldn’t attract such an outpouring of compulsory veneration.
Clues about Haugen’s political orientation and objectives are not hard to come by, however. At the Yale event, Haugen went out of her way to clarify that achieving virality on Facebook is not always bad, notwithstanding all the horrors of “misinformation” and “divisive” content which she says gets algorithmically promoted to the masses, who by her lights are too stupid to deploy critical thinking skills in assessing the veracity of what they’re consuming online. Even with the adjustments to Facebook’s architecture that she proposes, Haugen maintains it would still be possible for “ideas whose time has come” — as she put it — to gain viral momentum. One such example of a Facebook-enabled “social movement” worth preserving according to Haugen is “Pantsuit Nation,” an anti-Trump group that she said “got something like 12 million members in two weeks” after the 2016 election. Why Haugen chose that particular group as an example of the good that can still come from Facebook, we can only speculate.
Haugen also claims that she wants to ensure that Facebook is able to “promote the good on the civic side.” But of course, what is “good” from the standpoint of “civics” is an inherently political question, however aggressively one chooses to disavow any partisan affiliation. Can you name anything more obviously political than rival notions about what constitutes the “civic good”? The thing with Haugen and other people who hold themselves out as unsullied, non-political actors is that their conception of “political” tends to be narrowly defined as Democrat vs. Republican, and because they’re not overtly declaring themselves to be partisan activists, they therefore lay claim to somehow not being “political” — even when they’re engaging in the most nakedly political activity imaginable. “Counter-espionage” against officially-designated adversaries of the US Government has nothing to do with “politics”? What a joke.
Haugen was previously a member of the “Civic Integrity Unit” at Facebook, which infamously lapped up US Intelligence Community propaganda and censored news coverage of Hunter Biden’s email archive on the (false) grounds that it was “Russian disinformation.” As shockingly discrediting as that episode was, Haugen has nonetheless expressed satisfaction with her work on the project: “We didn’t see a repeat of 2016,” she said of the 2020 election, “where you had nation-state actors distributing all sorts of things on the platform.” What things, exactly? Doesn’t matter! None of this is “political” anyway because Haugen has the minimal restraint required to refrain from explicitly festooning her Pantsuit with a collage of “Kamala in 2024” bumper stickers.
“If we want to live in a society where we treat each other with respect,” Haugen told her Yale admirers, “if we don’t want a cancel culture, we need to not have systems of information that choose for us what to focus on, and choose based on anger and extreme positions.” Well, what even constitutes an “extreme” position these days? I’ve been personally labeled some sort of dangerous extremist for reporting on nonsensical COVID policies, so I’m not sure why Haugen — or anyone she imagines will occupy the new government regulatory body she’s advocating — should be trusted to fashion themselves as the rightful adjudicators of “extremism.” But perhaps we’ll get more details soon, because Dana Bash of CNN excitedly announced that Haugen is “poised to meet with the January 6th committee.” An entity which we’re also supposed to believe is entirely divorced from “politics.”
For the record: Sure, excessive use of Facebook (or more commonly, Instagram) by children and teenagers can be a problem for their self-esteem, and may subject them to teasing, ridicule, and other social ostracization tactics common among kids both online and off. It can be especially bad for teen girls. However, “think of the children!” mantras tend to generate support for censorship precisely because they appeal to the natural instinct adults have to shield children from danger — including, in this instance, Republican Senators, many of whom would be wary of giving Big Tech additional censorship powers if not for the “child safety” angle shrewdly emphasized by Haugen.
I don’t even like or use Facebook, but the melodramatic scapegoating of the company for everything from girls’ body issues, to “stoking division” in society, to “destabilizing democracies” has gotten completely over-the-top — to the point that it’s become an excuse for power factions to neglect doing any introspection about their own culpability in social problems. What’s next, Facebook ate your homework?
It’s also notable that the capitulations Facebook made to elite pressure after the 2016 election — when they were accused of allowing “misinformation” and “Russian interference” to install Donald Trump in the White House — are now being decried as not having gone nearly far enough. They may have hired Haugen and a whole crew of like-minded functionaries to oversee speech-regulation efforts during the 2020 election, but that only resulted Haugen becoming an official “whistleblower” on the grounds that she didn’t have enough free rein to impose her preferred censorship dictates. Lesson: nothing will ever suffice for pro-censorship zealots, because they’ll always find another “content” area that they lack the ability to regulate to their liking.
Haugen attempts to skirt the idea that she’s promoting censorship by arguing that her suggested interventions are not “content-based,” but this doesn’t make any sense, because what she’s arguing for is that malevolent “content” be obscured to users based on subjective determinations (such as her own) about the supposed undesirability of that content. How else could one conclude that content being promoted on Facebook or any other social media platform is unduly “divisive” if not on the basis of an expressly “content-based” determination? It’s a clever little end-run that certainly has beguiled many of the public officials she’s attempting to convince, including censorship-wary Republicans, and also helps her create the impression that she’s not advocating for any sort of “political issue.” But the ultimate result of what she’s advocating is ever-more control over the content of political speech online. How that control gets exerted is a “political issue” regardless of how assiduously Haugen avoids expressing a personal partisan preference.
Mouthing platitudes about “National Security” along with the need to “Protect Children” is a perfect little pairing to generate maximum deference from powerful institutions, and deference is not what genuine “whistleblowers” are typically accorded. You have to admit, her PR handlers — whoever they are, exactly — have done a fantastic job.