The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why this Facebook scandal is bigger than any other

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before a Senate subcommittee on Oct. 5 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Frances Haugen loves Facebook, she swears. Surely, however, Facebook does not love her back.

This purported love is key to understanding what’s different about this Facebook imbroglio, besides the sheer volume of documents unleashed into the ether. Because the company’s dirty secrets, little and big, have been shared before — sometimes barely making the pages of major newspapers and sometimes (as in the case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal) prompting congressional hearings.

But Haugen’s whistle has been heard around the world louder than any before, and the sound hasn’t stopped echoing. Her story combines the tropes of the time-tested whistleblower genre with the more modern ethos of Silicon Valley. (Heck, she’s even an early cryptocurrency investor who has absconded to the loosey-goosey tax regime of Puerto Rico.) There is our hero, as disillusioned as the rest of us with a company that was supposed to connect us but has ripped society to smithereens instead. And she’s disillusioned, too, with her own inability to improve things from the inside.

She’s not going to sift through dusty cabinets for files, because this is 2021. She’ll comb through the social network’s own social network, where c​​olleagues have amassed documents and data, as a technology behemoth does best. On her last day at the company, knowing her activities are logged, she’ll leave in the search bar her message of forlorn love. “I don’t hate Facebook,” she writes. “I love Facebook. I want to save it.”

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Why is this so compelling? Whistleblowers sometimes attract as much scorn as admiration for a lack of loyalty — the gumption it takes to decide you’re right when everyone around you and above you is wrong looks like individualism to some and narcissism to others. Haugen splits the difference. She doesn’t think she’s better than Facebook. She thinks Facebook is better than Facebook — or at least it can be.

There’s something else: A tale of betrayal always benefits from angst on the part of the protagonist. Otherwise it doesn’t feel enough like betrayal. Yet by drawing herself close to the company she’s critiquing, Haugen also becomes evermore credible.

Everything about her tale involves turning Facebook against itself: its values, troves of information, its words. This time the company can’t claim that naysaying outsiders armed with an agenda but without facts are making ignorant mischief. The nays were said on the inside, based on inside information.

The passing-on of this inside information hits hardest when the messenger, too, is an insider. So, because Haugen’s resignation (plus financial support from billionaire eBay-founder-turned-tech critic Pierre Omidyar) risks positioning her as a foe instead, she must situate herself figuratively and philosophically right in the C-suite with Mark Zuckerberg and the bigwigs. Haugen suddenly seems to carry all the authority of her erstwhile employer without any of the shadiness the down-and-out juggernaut just can’t shake.

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The authority pays dividends to Haugen — and likely yanks them away from Facebook shareholders. N​​o company, after all, looks more out of control than when someone else is in control. And Haugen has never let slip her hold on this conversation, from the carefully curated rollout of initial stories by the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Horwitz, including a hagiographic profile-podcast hybrid (“I auditioned Jeff for a while,” Haugen told the New York Times’s Ben Smith), to a slot on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” to the blockbuster testimony on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers three years ago couldn’t fathom how Facebook made money if it was free, and they asked representatives for Google about problems with their iPhones. They have since taken small steps toward understanding, but now a savior has arrived to help them make a giant leap forward — never mind that lots of longtime academic experts in Internet governance consider many of her ideas ill-advised.

Even Haugen’s decision to invite journalists from more than a dozen outlets to pore over her thousands of purloined documents contributes to the effect. Yes, it’s ushered in such a deluge of overlapping, crisscrossing reportage that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s old, what’s new and what matters most. But this tsunami only increases Haugen’s importance as a sort of filter: guiding intercontinental movers and shakers to the shore of her insight.

Facebook, meanwhile, looks like it’s drowning — precisely because its faithless lover has told the whole world she wants to save it.