Women Whistleblowers Aren’t Always Believed

For whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, pulling back the curtain does not always change the script of the play.

Frances Haugen, Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. (Screenshots from C-SPAN)

I could see clearly the potential harm: Sixteen years ago as an early adopter of Facebook at Northwestern University, where I was on the journalism faculty, I called out the dangers that were possible for students from vicious posts—and I got backlash. This reaction is unfortunately sometimes the case. 

Following the recent congressional hearing and testimony by former Facebook product manager and whistleblower Frances Haugen on the precarious effects of Facebook and Instagram on the mental health of teens and children—particularly women and girls—it is obvious my views about negative social media impacts were prescient. 

But like other female whistleblowers, pulling back the curtain does not always change the script of the play. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford called out Brett Kavanaugh’s outrageous behavior and he now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court alongside Justice Clarence Thomas, even though Anita Hill bravely detailed his sexual harassment of her in 1991.  

My instincts on the effects of hate speech prompted my warnings—unlike Facebook executives, who quashed their hard data on hate speech for profitable algorithms and clicks to become a nearly $1 trillion enterprise that knowingly promoted products that harmed children and put vulnerable populations in regular danger. Even in the face of Mark Zuckerberg’s denials of malicious intent or purposeful dodging of harms on his platforms, the danger signs were there; the evidence was visible while the social network was growing from a university-based connector to a global power source. As Haugen, former lead product manager on the Facebook civic misinformation team, testified, Facebook continually “makes choices that go against the common good.”

When Facebook was only a year old, in March 2005, I sent an email to all my students enrolled in the freshmen journalism course that I was “outraged and dumbfounded” by the names of Facebook groups such as “I Was Raped by My Medill Midterm,” a group with the profile picture of a fellow professor desecrated with hand-drawn devil horns, a beard and mustache. In scrolling through the Facebook groups, I also discovered groups that targeted individual students directly by name with taunts, threats and cruel mockery—classic bullying about appearance and identity; some were explicitly violent in nature. 

As a parent of sons who were then 13, 11 and 8, I could envision Facebook as a new unregulated opportunity for cruelty to young people—and adults—though no one at the time could possibly have imagined the enormous reach of Facebook after it dropped “the” from its name and was available to users beyond those with a “.edu” email suffix. To me, it was a digitized version of mean-spirited handwritten, anonymous notes passed around a classroom; or anonymous cruel messages left on voicemail. Way back when, I worried about the implications for students who already felt marginalized. I worried about the implications of the photo of my colleague attached to a group using “rape” as a joke.  

“I consider what I have discovered … to be injustices,” I wrote in an email to all my students. “I feel as your instructor it is my obligation to bring this to your attention so you can learn from this and change the behavior. If you did this on a blog about a boss or source, you’d be fired. In my view, then and now, hate speech is not protected.”

Vicious misinformation should not be rewarded with clicks and likes. And the effects on real people must not be ignored. Perhaps predictably, I got lambasted, attacked as an enemy of free speech.  

It led to the school’s forum on Facebook and free speech. Yes, I was one faculty member sending one email to one group of students and suffered no professional consequences, other than tauntings on social media. My call-out was minuscule compared to the bravery some embody when calling out powerful individuals, companies, entire broken systems. 

One of the more eye-opening letters to the editor in the Daily Northwestern back then warned me:

“The fact that you are even slightly offended or upset by the names of some groups on thefacebook should be a big sign that you need to lighten up. First of all, the four group names in question are hilarious. … Lastly, being ‘raped’ by something is just colloquial.” 

For my lifetime, I had never considered rape to be colloquial.

But then this has been the tone of defensive refrain from scores of politicians, celebrities, leaders, entrepreneurs and public figures from Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein who claim their racist, sexist, outrageous acts on social media in their youth were minor transgressions and that cancel culture needs to lighten up. After the Wall Street Journal published internal Facebook reports on deleterious mental health impacts on youth and Haugen initially spilled the beans on 60 Minutes, it seems there finally may be a reckoning for Facebook higher-ups ignoring the consequences of reckless online cruelty, hate speech and misinformation. 

It seems there finally may be a reckoning for Facebook higher-ups ignoring the consequences of reckless online cruelty, hate speech and misinformation. 

Following the recent sudden outage of the social media triptych of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for their 2.9 billion global users, Zuckerberg’s reported net worth of $116.9 billion suffered a drop of $7 billion. Financial consequences for the parent company may be even greater than temporary access inconvenience as many investors consider Facebook “the new Big Tobacco” and environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing entities are scrutinizing their investments in Facebook. Bloomberg reports, “ESG-focused funds have blacklisted Facebook for past controversies, and it currently has a riskier ESG score than Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Microsoft Corp. or Apple.”

Times have certainly changed since my 2005 caveat to a group of about 100 students at one university. But my instincts then, and Haugen’s actions earlier this month, were both prompted by inclinations of moral responsibility. 

Many of us could see—for a long time now—the inherent dangers of an unpoliced, boundaryless platform that targets individuals and knowingly assaults their sense of safety. But the key difference between Facebook insiders and me is I stood up immediately and sent a warning about potential harms to themselves and others merely because it was the right thing to do. 

It is what Haugen did. It is what former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang says she is willing to do. It is what many do and have done across the gender spectrum whistleblowers including Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, Karen Silkwood, USA gymnasts, Hollywood celebrities, who sound the alarm on individuals, organizations, practices and behaviors that cause harm. It is what anyone and everyone faced with injustice needs to do no matter how small, no matter the cost. 

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Michele Weldon is a journalist, author, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, senior leader with The OpEd Project and editorial director of Take The Lead. Her latest book, "Act Like You're Having A Good Time," is out in September.