Facebook is in the midst of its biggest crisis to date — an impressive feat, no doubt, given the litany of crises preceding it. It’s a safe bet that trust in the company has hit its lowest point in its 17-year history. Still, anyone second-guessing the significance of the recent whistleblower revelations about Facebook should be forgiven their suspicions; if not for Facebook’s monopolistic grip on the industry it globally dominates, then for the years of pointless hearings that featured much talk of change, but invariably delivered none.
It is a crisis, nonetheless, and one of Facebook’s own creation; a crisis presumably viewed more soberly from within, where public trust is still a currency Facebook must recoup or die. “If people do not perceive our products to be useful, reliable, and trustworthy,” as recent Facebook financial reports warn, “we may not be able to attract or retain users … or maintain the frequency of their engagement.”
Despite years of hollow overtures from the empty-shirts in Congress, Facebook, a trillion-dollar employer of some 60,000 people, has suddenly found itself flung into a state of bedlam, and by only one of its number: a single credible informant who, despite painting Facebook as a rudderless vessel, guided by a busted moral compass, insists the company is still salvageable and should not be left to scuttle.
Frances Haugen, better known now as “the Facebook whistleblower,” has at every public appearance exemplified a quality that her actions have ironically dispossessed Facebook of entirely: Believability. In her witnessing Tuesday on Capitol Hill — a place purported hominoid Mark Zuckerberg once painstakingly sipped a glass water — Haugen was the very picture of coherence and unflappability, even giving life to a temporary ceasefire between bitter political rivals, steering them instead toward a mutual and more conscienceless foe.
The confidence that Haugen alone justified all this commotion was sustained by a refreshing aura of personal agency and responsibility, which she projected with ease throughout each poignant response. But Haugen, in fact, was not alone, and never was. For most of the year, she’s been counseled and protected by one of the nation’s preeminent whistleblower organisations, the aptly named Whistleblower Aid.
In an interview with Gizmodo this week, attorneys Mark Zaid and John Tye (the latter of whom is a former government whistleblower himself) provided insights into how their organisation aided Haugen as she prepared to cross into the light. That and what takes — and what it costs — to blow the whistle on a company with a market cap the size of Switzerland.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Gizmodo: Tell us about the work that was put into preparing Haugen for her public debut.
John Tye: Frances is incredibly smart and articulate. She arrived already as one of the world’s experts on how social media algorithms work, and how they
impact users and societies. And she is eager to tell her story and concerns to people who can actually do something about it. But testifying to Congress takes work and preparation. So we’ve worked with Frances to make sure she’s feeling comfortable before she goes in front of our legislators.
Mark Zaid: One of the services that Whistleblower Aid provides is to ensure that its clients are able to effectively and lawfully speak to the media, as well as any oversight bodies. Often times in these cases, the documents speak for themselves. But the media always wants to have a face and a voice. Sometimes the lawyers can address that, or the client. In other cases, where there are no legal concerns — especially with respect to national security or with respect to anonymity of their identity — then the client would be the most effective individual to promote the substance of the story. So like any good lawyer, we’ll prep clients in order to be focused on how to answer questions properly. We have media experts that we work with to guide folks with something as simple as, you know, where do you look when you’re talking to a camera or a host? How do you best fluidly answer a question to come across in a positive way? Everything that might be connected to ensuring the individual’s image and substance are at their best.
Gizmodo: Ms. Haugen has filed several complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Can you give us a rundown of the allegations she’s made?
Tye: Frances’s complaints have touched on misrepresentations about hate speech and violent and inciting content; the impact of Instagram on teen girls; underinvestment in non-English language content reviews; the platform’s role in the January 6 Capitol invasion; misrepresentations to investors about advertising and users; the impact of Facebook’s internal algorithms on amplifying harmful speech and activities, and other issues.
Gizmodo: Could you expand a little bit on the role of your organisation and why it was founded to begin with?
Zaid: Sure. So we founded it in 2017, John and I. John had been my client when he was a whistleblower at the State Department in 2014. And the key takeaway that we had was that we wanted to be able to create an organisation that would encourage and enable particularly national security whistleblowers to be able to speak out — and not cause them legal problems. There have been too many cases in recent years of folks who are called whistleblowers who have, strictly speaking, just stolen classified documents and release them to the media. And while that may have a positive as well as negative effect, depending on what the subject matter is, it’s a pathway that is not recommended; not for the individual, not for the country. We saw a real gap that existed to be able to provide whistleblowers with effective legal representation for free, which most of them cannot afford otherwise, and to ensure a pathway that they could reveal everything that reasonably concerned them. That while minimising, if not necessarily eliminating, any potential retaliation against them. And it’s been a very successful four years.
Gizmodo: What kind of person decides to become a whistleblower?
Zaid: Yeah, good question. So without a doubt, there is often a pattern that exists around the type of person who does become a whistleblower. And I’ll say most people very often don’t intend to become a whistleblower. It’s not something that they even realised they were doing. Most people are merely bringing to the attention of proper authority figures — whether it’s supervisors or owners of a company, or management in an agency, or an inspector general, or an investigative oversight body like in Congress — they’re bringing something to them for which they have a reasonable good faith belief reflects some sort of wrongdoing or mismanagement or illegality. Many times, frankly, whistleblowers end up being wrong, especially in the intelligence community, only because they have a compartmentalized view; a very narrow window into the issue. But that doesn’t mean that what they saw or heard was not a legitimate concern. That’s why it’s so important to be able to bring that concern to proper oversight authorities in a legitimate way, so that nothing is compromised and they are protected. But we often see someone who is very generally motivated. It’s usually a public-service-minded motivation guiding them to do what they believe to be the right thing.
Gizmodo: What is life like for a whistleblower?
Zaid: Well, it definitely varies. So one of the important things is to make sure that the case does not become about the whistleblower versus the information that individual is trying to disclose. When it becomes more about them rather than the substance, you may have a problem on your hands. Not always, but oftentimes it does go down that path. So a lot of what we do is to ensure that the whistleblower client understands the expectations, particularly that they maintain a realistic view of what those expectations are. You know, we’re not necessarily going to solve the problems of the world sort of one step at a time. Very, very often the worst enemy of a whistleblower is themselves. When they do not have legal representation that is knowledgeable and experienced, they very commonly go down a wrong path that not only undermines them personally, but also the objective that they originally sought to pursue regarding whatever the substance of their whistleblower concerns might have been.
Gizmodo: What’s the biggest mistake people make?
Zaid: A lot of times it’s things that they just don’t know or understand, understandably. Hmm. Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of little tricks that we can do when the lawyers are experienced and a lot of it is also, you know, we know the right people in the US government — if that’s what the cases involve, knowing how best to bring something to light. When we have federal government whistleblowers, especially in the national security arena, we make sure they take certain actions that do not create a firing offence for those individuals. And we have even been able to get permission from their agencies for those individuals to speak out publicly — to members of the media, certainly to Congress, without jeopardizing their employment. With a limited scope, of course, if it’s classified. What often happens to whistleblowers is that they tend to become insubordinate, or be perceived as insubordinate to their supervisors, oftentimes because they become impatient and don’t feel that they’re being listened to or taken seriously enough. And sometimes that could be true. As lawyers, when the whistleblowers do things on their own, we often see that the whistleblower tends to start believing that they know what the best course of action is, when the reality is, they know very little about how to best handle even their own case. And that’s that’s why we hire lawyers. That’s why we hire advisors. And that’s why we go talk to others to get advice before we make a very important decision that could impact not only our own life, our own career, but that of others too.
Gizmodo: Ostensibly there are just people all over the country witnessing acts of negligence and misconduct on the job. At what point does it become ok for them to start amassing evidence against their employer, or talk to lawyers and journalists?
Zaid: It will vary depending on what the nature of the information is. Again, if it’s classified information, there’s a lot more restrictions and concerns that we have because it is really easy for someone who’s compiling information legitimately and for good reason to be perceived as an insider threat because that conduct matches what has been seen before of spies and leakers. So how you print documents, how you save them, and in what manner you save them, and how you transmit them to proper oversight authorities — that all has a lot to do with how this person is going to be perceived. And it’s similar within the private sector, of course, too. And you know, there are ownership issues with information; non-disclosure agreements that have been signed; proprietary information. There can be a lot of pitfalls for a whistleblower where they could stumble into an arena where they are subject to criminal or civil penalties. We are there in order to navigate that as much as possible to avoid those situations all the time.
Gizmodo: How do companies typically respond after learning about a whistleblower in their ranks?
Zaid: So it also varies. I mean, there are no specific templates where we can say “this is how it’s going to be specifically.” It would obviously depend on the size of the company, who the whistleblower might be, what they might have. But it is a very interesting sort of dichotomy, or double-edged sword, regarding whistleblowers, because publicly, some private companies and the government praise whistleblowers. They are good saying, “This is what we want people to do.” You know, the “see something, do something” attitude. But the reality is, they only want that when it doesn’t involve them. They want it for someone else. So there it is. Very often you see a private or public entity become incredibly defensive. So for example, the Jan. 6 committee — the select committee — you know, here it was. I was working with them for their first hearing, representing two whistleblowers who were Capitol Police officers. And at the same time, while I’m working with the committee to prepare these individuals, we learn that their chief of staff is known to have reprised illegally against whistleblowers — including my own colleague and former client current client Andrew Bakaj. Andrew was a whistleblower at the CIA and at DHS and the inspector general concluded that this person — now on the Jan. 6 committee — had illegally retaliated against Andrew. It’s a sad state of affairs, but they often get defensive when accused of potential wrongdoing or missteps. But at the same time, the committee is promoting whistleblowers, saying, “You should come to us. Don’t worry, you won’t be retaliated against (even though we have people on our staff who’ve retaliated against whistleblowers.)”
Gizmodo: Historically, how vital have whistleblowers been to exposing corporate misconduct?
Zaid: Without a doubt, there’s often very little oversight of corporate misconduct because there are difficulties in overseeing how a private company operates. And in many jurisdictions, it’s an at-will employment, which means the whistleblower frankly can be fired very easily. I mean, there are some protections that are more limited, but it’s not my area, so it’s hard for me to speak to it. At Whistleblower Aid, you know, my role is to deal with the federal cases and especially national security. But obviously, Whistleblower Aid goes well beyond national security in the U.S. system. We deal with private whistleblowers as well, and we in fact deal with international cases. And ultimately, hopefully, we will be big enough that we can deal with whistleblowers at all levels local, state, federal, international, and private, and ensure that, you know, not only are they not incurring out-of-pocket costs for doing the right thing, but also their career paths are protected and salvaged and preserved.
Gizmodo: In Ms. Haugen’s case, what made it necessary for her to search outside Facebook for help?
Tye: Frances saw that other Facebook staff had tried to address some of these problems internally, but there were no paths inside the company to actually solve the problems. She had seen a number of other people simply give up, and quit. She realised that to have real impact, she’d need to use the lawful disclosure process to get her evidence and concerns to law enforcement and legislators.
Gizmodo: What advice would you give to someone about to blow the whistle?
Zaid: Best advice would be to seek out those who are experienced in the area before you do it, so you can make sure to protect yourself as much as possible. It’s not a fun thing, becoming a whistleblower. It has an impact on the individual, not only personally but professionally, but also very often extends to their families. It’s something you really have to want to do. Having an informed knowledge of the different pathways that are available and the options that can be chosen. And oftentimes that is only at play if you can find individuals who are experienced enough to guide you. There are people out there who can do that. You also have to make sure that the people who are guiding you don’t have an agenda of their own. That’s why, at least for lawyers, we have an ethical obligation to protect the interests of our clients. And that’s why we always want to make sure that they can articulate to us what objectives they seek, and then we can address the realistic nature of those objectives. Sometimes we need to turn away potential clients because their objectives are just not going to be reasonable. We need to be able to make sure that we can properly represent an individual at the same time. While we may have a particular interest in a topic, we also have to make sure that the laws are followed — of our country or the world, as it may be.
Gizmodo: How do people contact your organisation if they’re considering blowing the whistle?
Zaid: Whistleblower Aid tries to have some of the tightest, most secure communication methods. So if you go through the website, you need to download the Tor browser and everything is secure by way of the inability of anyone to intercept the communications. There are lots of extra steps for people really concerned. We do not ever want anybody to send us classified information, document-wise or verbal. So actually, the system blocks any documents from being sent, so you can only do text. But those of us who are affiliated with the organisation also maintain a private practice. Obviously anybody can just find my email address or Andrew’s email address and email us directly. And that that often happens too, so we just refer them back to Whistleblower Aid, or decide what the next steps will be.
Gizmodo: Thanks for doing this. Is there anything else we should know?
Probably the only thing we’d say, you know, because we provide free representation, we rely upon donors to help fund our organisation. A lot of times it’s individuals, sometimes it’s institutions, but oftentimes it’s like we’re doing now with the GoFundMe. That’s just going to be lots of individuals who give small donations. That helps. We try to, frankly, pay lawyers who we know are incredibly well experienced — highly experienced in their expertise, and we want to do that in a way that enables them to be able to participate in these cases without jeopardizing what their normal incomes would be. So we want to ensure that whistleblowers don’t have to incur anything, and we want to be able to provide proper compensation to the lawyers or the experts that we need. So, you know, we count on the generosity of others who believe in what we do to help protect lawful whistleblowers. And the key word there is “lawful” whistleblowers.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.