Frances Haugen: Digital Dignity And Young People

Frances Haugen likes answering hard questions. Long before she was famous, she was whip-smart, a high school debate champ, and then a history major. She arrived at Facebook with a strong sense of ethics, and the fortitude to stand up for what she felt needed to be brought out into the sunlight. Now she’s known as the Facebook Whistleblower.

So when I invited her to have a wide-ranging conversation with 15 young people, she was immediately receptive. Because she knows better than anyone that the future of the internet is in their hands.

“We need to be extremely worried about Facebook,” she told the group. “When Mark talks about flattening the org chart right, he's basically stripping the company for parts.”

15-year-old Tia Jackson, who is homeschooled, raised this question: “There's just there's so much news coming at you. There's just so much violence.  Do you think people who post something they probably shouldn't should be banned for life?”

Haugen’s answer: “I do want to be a little careful when we assign responsibility to individuals, if the algorithms are continuously pushing you towards more extreme topics. You have a First Amendment right to say horrible things. I do think there's a difference between freedom of speech and freedom of reach. [But] I fully support kicking people's accounts off if you are inciting violence.”



Avalon Fenster, a junior at Barnard College/Columbia University, asked, ”I know that you were very involved in providing input on Section 230 and its relationship to general First Amendment rights in the United State.  Do you think that proposals to weaken section 230 are feasible, or if we're looking at the wrong thing?

Haugen answered, “ I was kind of horrified when I saw that they had taken up that case. I was incredibly heartened that the Supreme Court kept repeating over and over again, ‘we're probably not the right people to talk about this.’

“The thing that I'm super scared of, is that if you just strike down 230 without doing anything else, it's going to be extremely chaotic. I think the European Union has taken the right tack and passed a huge generational law that I think is the gold standard for regulation in the world."

She added,  “So when we talk about the problem of social media, some people will say it's teen depression, some people say it's hate speech, some people will say it's unaccountable censorship. I think the problem with social media is that it is opaque, that we cannot do any of our normal rituals of governance. Facebook knew that if they did not give out data on their systems like even basic data, they could deny and deflect and minimize those concerns.”

So what’s on the horizon? Haugen is excited about pending legislation: “The Digital Services Act goes specifically at that problem [of social media].  It says hey, there's no way for us to catch up with what you know about your systems unless you actually level with us about what you know. So [companies] have to go in there and say what they believe are the risks of their products, and they have to publish these risks so everyone can see them. And they're  going to have to give academics and civil Civil Society groups access to their data. The DSA is an amazing example of where to go.” 

You can view the complete hour-long conversation here. The young people asked Haugen about billionaire ownership, about the loss of digital integrity teams, about safety and mental health. More than I have room for here.

But in the end, Haugen had a vision for a better web: “There are ways of building technology that is is focused on people's humanity, and that values the autonomy of the people that use these products and their dignity.”

Digital dignity -- that seems like an idea we can all support.

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